Wag The Dog (1997)

D: Barry Levinson
S: Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Heche

Limp, predictable, concept-driven satire which never finds a tone which either chills or amuses its audience. Obvious from the outset, despite the presence of actors such as Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro and the impressionistic directorial style of Barry Levinson, the film is never either realistic enough or outrageous enough to work on the level of either serious political satire or po-faced farce.

In an attempt to distract the American media from the sexual misconduct of the President in the build up to his re-election, spin doctor De Niro engages Hollywood producer Hoffman to stage manage a bogus war with Albania. The resultant gags aimed at both Hollywood and Washington fall somewhere between smarmy in-jokes and smug psuedo-cynicism, and very few are effective or funny.

The script, co-written by David Mamet is obviously pleased with itself insofar as the rash of insider humour and elliptical dialogue are presumed to ooze sophistication. Fleeting glimpses of the world of political back door shenanigans and show-business schmoozing amount to nothing more than a series of half-realised sketches. Even given Levinson's penchant for scattershot films which usually come together in the end, this is a weak assemblage of ideas which eventually crumbles in the absence of real bite.

On the level of performance, while Anne Heche registers suitable nervous concern as a White House aide and De Niro is effectively low-key. Hoffman is clearly having more fun than his viewers as a transparent caricature, but his fate is too predetermined by far to elicit any sympathy. None of them are particularly funny, and the film never finds a suitable tone to allow them to slink over the line from sophomoric parody to frightening archetype as in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strange love. Only Woody Harrelson as a psychotic rapist registers any moments of genuine black humour, and even then he is tempered by a somewhat perfunctory dispatch from the proceedings not long after his eventual arrival. Support from others including Dennis Leary, William H. Macy and even Willie Nelson is fine, but like most of the elements in the film, drifts in and out of focus as Levinson attempts to weave a delicate tapestry out of material which simply isn't there.

The final result is a film which leaves a sour aftertaste. You can sense the intelligences behind it and can sort your way through the various jokes aimed at people who like to sit back and smile silently rather than actually register enjoyment. But you can't help feeling taken for granted. This empty and worthless film has the audacity to presume that it evinces genuine penetration, and that its jokes about post modernism and the death of a genuine political conscience in America somehow excuse its own lack of conviction.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.