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Highbrow Anxiety

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By (low) biopic standards, this is a promising plan of attack. What’s dismaying is the lameness of the execution. W. receives the news in a Cabinet meeting that there are no WMDs in Iraq, listens to Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) and Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) sputter excuses, and says: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me … You can’t get fooled again.” This is, of course, a legendary “Bushism,” but it was blithered at a press conference when Bush had his usual trouble reciting his folksy talking points. Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser don’t seem to know the difference between public and private discourse. There’s no racy, idiomatic dialogue here—no scenes with an independent life. The whole movie is talking points.

Brolin at least holds the screen. Early on, his W. is pure appetite, cramming food into his mouth and swilling beer. Suddenly sober, he’s a man reeling in search of a self. But I don’t buy his fundamental earnestness. Stone’s W. isn’t the smirking liar who never, as Norman Mailer said, felt a twinge of doubt about his qualifications to be president. He’s in over his head, but he means well.

W. isn’t gripping enough as drama or witty enough as satire. It’s neutered. Did Stone want to change his rabble-rouser image and show his critics he has become more responsible? (He has his own daddy issues.) Big mistake! His greatest asset—and I say this as someone whose least favorite film is Natural Born Killers—is a lusty, blowhard showmanship. In the midst of the turmoil that George W. Bush has wrought, Stone has delivered his most tepid film.

Clint Eastwood’s Changeling is based on the true story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mother whose young son disappeared in 1928 and was returned six months later—at least, the Los Angeles Police Department said it was her son. She didn’t recognize him, which irritated the patriarchal and corrupt police captain so much he threw her into a mental hospital. It would be a horrific story even if underplayed, but Eastwood shoots it like a horror movie. The false boy is lit to resemble the Antichrist Damien in The Omen, while in the psychiatric ward, whey-faced loons press their heads against the bars and shriek, ugly nurses leer, and the creepy doctor plots to throw Angie on a gurney and give her jolts of electricity. The ham-handed script by J. Michael Straczynski rearranges events so that the motives of the police captain (Jeffrey Donovan) are unfathomable—he must want Damien to grow up and bring forth Armageddon. The way Eastwood shoves Jolie’s suffering in our face is like a threat to the Academy: “And the Oscar will go to … ” She’s a great actress. She doesn’t need his domineering chivalry.

Synecdoche, New York
Directed by Charlie Kaufman.
Sony Pictures Classics. R.

W.
Directed by Oliver Stone.
Lionsgate. PG-13.

Changeling
Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Universal Pictures. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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