Most viewers probably suspected that PRIMARY COLORS from THE
BIRDCAGE's collaborative team of director Mike Nichols and writer
Elaine May would be a funny comedy, although many may have feared,
incorrectly, that it would wallow in caricature and cheap shots. What
is so surprising about what has turned out to be the best new movie
released thus far this year is that it is so much more that merely
funny. Nichols and May have produced a veritable laugh riot that
manages to move seamlessly from comedy to tragedy to social commentary
and back again. An adroit movie that can turn on a dime, it mesmerizes
its audiences in the same way that its fictional governor wins the
hearts and minds of his audiences.
After the 1992 campaign columnist, Joe Klein, writing under the
pseudonym "Anonymous," turned his observations and research into a
novel by changing the characters' names and transforming some of the
incidents. Given the subsequent scandals, especially the current ones,
the movie borders on being almost frighteningly relevant.
Starting with close-ups of Clinton -- oops, I did it already -- I
mean Southern governor Jack Stanton shaking hands, we learn the subtle
meanings of his various handshakes. (And, if the explanations are
correct, then when the real life Clinton shook my hand during the
campaign, I got a grade C handshake that meant nothing.)
As Governor Stanton, a beefed up John Travolta gives a creepily
accurate portrayal. When he feels people's pains on the campaign
trail, he usually spins some story from his childhood that the crowd
can identify with. That the stories contain at best only a grain of
truth doesn't lessen his belief in them or their effect on the citizens
listening. He's one of them, and they like him.
From the beginning we learn that Jack likes all of his
constituents, especially the pretty, young females. And his aides
happily look the other way when he beds one early on in the picture.
As his wife, Susan, Emma Thompson gives an equally superlative
performance. The Stantons' apparently dysfunctional marriage is
actually highly functional since both share a single-minded desire to
get to the top. If that means Susan has to yell, curse like a sailor
and throw things at Jack in front of the help, well, so be it. Jack,
for his part, never seems to mind. It's the price he's used to paying
for a life of licentiousness. "The only shot we have here is to be
perfect," Susan lectures him when he is late as usual. The irony is
that they have no hope of attaining perfection, but they are both such
superlative political operatives that neither needs it.
Amidst all the hullabaloo of the campaign are quieter moments of
delicate power. In the George Stephanopoulos part, Adrian Lester plays
Henry Burton, the son of a famous civil rights leader, who wants to
change the world. He sees Jack as his ticket to where real power lies,
but he's worried that he's selling his soul when he's asked to join the
Stanton entourage as a key aide. At one point the sleaze overwhelms
Henry, and he's forced to stop the car so he can throw up.
When Henry goes to set up his first campaign headquarters, the
clueless crowd just stares at him when he asks if anyone has any
skills. Finally, one guy breaks the silence to allow as how he speaks
In easily the best performance in the picture, SLING BLADE's Billy
Bob Thornton plays the role of firebrand, redneck Richard Jemmons,
modeled after James Carville. Billy Bob manages to make the frequently
obnoxious Carville into a likable, albeit outrageous, political
operative par excellence. Richard, like his boss, does have his
foibles, seen, for example, when he exposes himself to fellow campaign
worker, Jennifer Rogers, played by Stacy Edwards from IN THE COMPANY OF
MEN. One hopes members of the Academy will remember Billy Bob's
performance when it comes time next year to vote for supporting actors.
The picture is so funny at times that you may have trouble
controlling yourself, Jack and Richard's "mamathon" being one of the
rib-ticklingest. Susan explains that when a couple of southern boys
get together and start swapping stories about their mamas, they may go
on forever. And in another scene, in which a cocky son of one of
Jack's opponents apologizes to Susan with a "Hope you don't mind if we
talk business?" she cattily assures him it's okay to discuss politics
with her husband in front of her. "How else can I learn?" replies the
ultra-savvy woman with beautifully fake naivete.
Nichols has a gift for staging physical comedy. When Jack loses
his temper, he throws the cell phone out the window. This causes Jack
and Susan to go searching through the bushes when they realize they
need it after all. Almost like sparring boxers, Nichols and May seem
to try to outdo each other in their collaboration. May, for example,
comes up with a wonderfully complicated conundrum for Richard. He
introduces a folksy tale about defecating in the woods while wild bears
attack that has everyone around the table interpreting his metaphors
differently. Almost all of Richard's hilarious lines in the movie are
unprintable although one particular astute one isn't. "That's what
these guys do," he says of the transient loyalty of politicians like
his boss. "They love you and then stop lovin' you."
In another wonderful piece of work, Kathy Bates is a tough lesbian
named Libby Holden, who puts out scandals in general and bimbo
eruptions in particular. "From now on you can call me the 'Dust
Buster,'" Libby explains her role. "I'm stronger than dirt."
Larry Hagman, as Gov. Fred Picker, one of Jack's opponents, gives
the best performance of his career. If you've ever had doubts about
the depth of his acting abilities, wait until his last scene, which is
"I'm going to tell you something really outrageous," Jack tells a
group of blue-collar workers. "I'm going to tell you the truth." In a
career in which his veracity always remains subservient to winning,
this could indeed be considered outrageous.
Since the movie is just a time slice from a long campaign,
choosing how to end it is tricky. The choice they made involves
setting before the Stantons a moral test that serves as kind of a
metaphor for the Stantons' political careers. Like the ending of the
TITANIC, the outcome of their moral test is never really in question.
PRIMARY COLORS runs 2:20 but feels much shorter. It is rated R
for profanity and sexual references and would be fine for teenagers.
Copyright © 1998 Steve Rhodes