Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

WAG THE DOG (1997) ** 1/2.

Directed by Barry Levinson. Written by Hilary Henkin & David Mamet from the book "American Hero" by Larry Beinhart. Photography, Robert Richardson. Production design, Wynn Thomas. Editing, Stu Linder. Music, Mark Knopfler. Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anne Heche, Denis Leary, Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson (uncredited), et al. A New Line release. 93 min. Rated R (language).
At any given moment movie genres come in twos, threes or in wolfpacks. Currently playing are "Wag the Dog," a shaggy dog story without a dog, and "As Good as It Gets," a shaggy dog story with a dog. The title "Wag the Dog" suggests another kiddie movie about a friendly hound, It is not. It's an adult (sort of) satire of politics, Hollywood, and the media. And although beautifully acted and intermittently quite funny, I find that its premise is mean and opportunistic as the inspiration obviously comes from headlines about President Clinton. It is all the stranger since, chances are, the filmmakers are Democrats.

The President of the United States has been charged by a young girl of molesting her when she was touring the White House with a group of Firefly Girls, whatever those are. By the horniest stretch of imagination, the accusation is unbelievable, but as the country is only days away from an election, it can do irreparable harm.

The President is away in China (collecting Chinese votes???!!!). His desperate aide Winifred Ames (Heche) calls Conrad Brean (De Niro) to a top secret meeting in a White House bunker. Brean, a Mr. Fixit spin doctor opts for a major diversion. He enlists Hollywood producer Stanley Motss, pronounced Moss (Hoffman) to fabricate an imaginary war with Albania --a ludicrous, farcical yet clever choice given America's ignorance of geography. The conflict comes complete with phony documentary footage made easy (and funny) by digital techniques. It includes references to a nonexistent new bomber (an airplane that is). A country singer (Willie Nelson) is hired to write a patriotic parody of "We Are the World" that massed choirs perform.

In its last section the plot somehow gets lost. The end of the "crisis" tries to top the fabulation with a returning war hero who is not what was expected. This is a strictly from hunger development, though Woody Harrelson has memorable presence. They baptize him Schumann (read Shoe Man) and incite the public to pepper the country with symbolic shoes (sic).

The hoodwinking of an entire nation is imaginative but never gives you a chance to suspend your disbelief. The eagerness of the media, especially TV, to swallow and disseminate the "news," the gullibility of the nation and its leaders, the cooperation of the military go from very, very, very marginally believable to incredible..

The other element is the comically exaggerated. But whereas in a gem like "Dr. Strangelove" the roles are out and out caricatural, here their outrageousness is semi-realistic as both Washington and Hollywood converge in their belief that, in De Niro's words, "war is show business." Dustin Hoffman, in his physical and temperamental likeness to and parody of the outrageous producer Robert Evans, merely pushes the envelope, which he does with great gusto. With frantic pacing and faster and faster talk (a contemporary variant of Howard Hawks' screwball comedies), under the lead of he agitated Hoffman and the unflappable De Niro, there is an avalanche of in-jokes about movie-makers and politicos.

What motivates Hoffman is twofold: his gripe that producers don't get Oscars, and his compulsion to produce the Himalaya of his career. This is amusing, up to a point. The yak yak however tries to pack too many esoteric references that contribute to some troughs of monotony. The dog barks but does not bite, the film does not open eyes or soar to a higher level. Its parts can be entertaining but their sum stays on the ground.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel