Wednesday, March 25, 1998

Primary Colors

Posted By on Wed, Mar 25, 1998 at 12:00 AM

Despite protestations from cast and crew, Primary Colors is the fictive bookend to D.A. Pennebaker's "fear and loathing on the campaign trail" documentary of Bill Clinton's 1992 conquest of the Oval Office, The War Room. Two years after Joe Klein's roman à clef set the political class abuzz about its mystery author, an adaptation has arrived on the silver screen. Some of you might be excited about this. Others won't give a rat's ass, because the telly already is delivering a 24-hour shitstream of Beltway intrigue with Slick Willie in his usual star role, chin up, pants down.

Let us, then, dispense with the plot. Critics of the Republican persuasion will point the stinky end of the stick at director Mike Nichols and writer Elaine May for the love letter mood that pervades the entire production. There is a certain cloying effervescence of New Age populism that threatens now and then to backfire into a festival of NPR-liberal flatulence. Whatever darker atmospheres and insights were in the Klein book are now either banished or given a quick, curative dose of vaudevillian sunshine. The Democratic Party couldn't have made a better propaganda film if it tried, just in time to drive out Newt's crew of turnip-truck hypocrites.

John Travolta, offering a good try at Slick Willy's accent and waistline, nonetheless grins his way out of your heart by the third reel. Only Billy Bob Thornton as Richard Jemmons-James Carville and Kathy Bates as Libby Holden-Betsey Wright add some much needed hops to the sugary brew. They are characters who can't smile away the wounds that make them so effective in the political game.

Why the fascination with Stanton-Clinton, a hillbilly kid with above-average smarts and below-average taste in women? In short, he is the apotheosis of the boomer generation; idealistic yet morally dodgy; hopelessly neurotic and self-involved yet socially conscious. The list goes on, as does the film. Primary Colors is a good time but a long time. Let patience be your guide.

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