Sigourney Weaver is terrific. She was terrific in Alien, where she started with a script not pointedly rewritten for a woman from the man’s part originally envisioned. She was good even in fluffy Galaxy Quest, and in Ghostbusters I and II, more earnest fluff; good as a damsel-in-distress psychologist and target-of-serial-killer in Copycat with Holly Hunter; impressively off-putting as boss-lady vis-a-vis Melanie Griffith in Working Girl. She’s even played a first lady before, in Dave, the movie starring Evan Bayh look-alike Kevin Kline in dual roles as president and lovable smurfy impostor-president.
So did Weaver get a chance to look at the script of Political Animals?
As suggested by the plot line in Dave, a narrow attention to political realism is not indispensable in political movies. That said, still–what happened with Political Animals? We’ve got some great actors–Weaver, Ellen Burstyn and Carla Gugino are doing a good job, so far, with what they’ve got. We’ve got a tempting story line, ripped from the Clintons’ life story if grafted smarmily onto North Carolina for that extra frisson. Reading between the lines is not necessary, nuance not called for; this is a straight-out guilty-pleasure type proffer, your B-flat summer serialized television movie.
I lasted fifteen minutes. If they don’t kill off Bud (Ciaran Hinds), the former president and philandering husband–even if they have to use that hallucinatory cliche of a heart attack during sex–they’ve lost me for good. Bud is not a retread of Bill Clinton, the character whose biography his resembles. He is a retread of Jack Stanton, the presidential candidate in Joe Klein’s Primary Colors–the stereotypical hog-wallow Southern politician who cannot speak without being smutty, who has no other button settings than folksy and brutal, and whose accent is like nothing heard on this earth including in North Carolina. Maybe the producers spent so much on talent above the line that they didn’t have the budget for a good dialect coach, but if someone doesn’t tell Hollywood (USA network) that there are other ways to convey regional background than a caricature of dialect and lexicon, yet more harm will ensue for this nation’s intellectual infrastructure.
Side note: Inevitable question– Could you do better? Yes, I could. But first I’d rather convey to Sandra Bullock the role she was born to play. I have it in mind. Call any time.
Speaking of hallucinatory cliches, there are three plot devices that unfailingly flag the bum writer, or the writer/team taking a day off and phoning it in. In film or literature, movies or books, high- or low-brow, they work the same:
- The up-in-the-air ending, otherwise known as the cop-out, where the resolution is not rounded off, not defined, but left undecided with some unmeaning thing they call ambiguity. One partial exception to this general rule is John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, where the author works so hard on the alternatives that the reader has more of an ending, rather than less as in Fear of Flying and Primary Colors, and more recently (I hear) The Sopranos. I like ambiguity as much as anyone does, but ambiguity and resolution are not mutually exclusive. If you want to go more than one direction with the ending, do it like Beethoven in Symphony #5, not with a coin toss as a pretentious substitute for authorial decision.
- The actress-playing-herself for a bit within the story, as in an episode of the old Jackie Gleason show The Honeymooners where Audrey Meadows came on as herself-as-movie-star, and recently with Julia Roberts doing the same in Ocean’s Twelve. Everybody needs a rest, including writers, but there’s a limit.
- Last and worst, that laugh-or-cry disaster for esthetic unity and substitute for form, the ending where the main character wakes up and it was all just a dream. Shakespeare used this device only to a limited extent, and with a complicated twist that freshened it, even back in the sixteenth century, in The Taming of the Shrew; the monumental Wizard of Oz put it away in 1939; it should be retired like a won-too-many-times trophy–until a genius thinks of a brilliant way to re-use it.
As hinted above, obviously these three devices do not exhaust the list of things to get wrong only on a grand scale or not use.
One can add played-out stereotypes and bad, BAD accents to the list. Any time you’ve got a character in a suit speaking as though through a mouthful of grits, and calling everything a son-of-a-bitch at that–why do writers relentlessly have their Southerner characters Son-of-a-bitching all the time?–you’ve probably got a letdown on your hands.
Granted, not everything can be The Good Wife, where the Julianna Margulies character could be an allegorical figure called Aplomb and the writers have actual vocabulary skills; or as sharply presented as Burn Notice. But can’t we have some action with a little class, a little bit of originality? How about a lawyer on the toilet or a large dog escaping the flames?