Weapons of Mass Distraction

To call "Weapons of Mass Distraction" a dark comedy is to give it far too much credit for lightness. It is writer/executive producer Larry Gelbart's poison-pen greeting card to tabloid America, but it ultimately represents a creative misfire for the esteemed "MASH" creator/producer/writer, despite some wickedly inspired moments. The HBO Pictures film could not possibly be more timely, what with News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch in the process of purchasing the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of his apparent bid to own the world. Timely, however, does not necessarily a shrewd film make; in fact, in the case of "Weapons," it serves to exacerbate the script's shortcomings.

With:
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Ben Kingsley, Mimi Rogers, Jeffrey Tambor, Illeana Douglas, Chris Mulkey, Paul Mazursky, Kathy Baker, R. Lee Ermey, Caroline Aaron, Jason Lee, Christina Pickles, Tom Wright, Randall Arney, Ben Bode.

As wildly inconsistent as it is shamelessly over the top, “Weapons of Mass Distraction” boasts a pair of typically canny performances from Gabriel Byrne and Ben Kingsley as aloof, power-mad media moguls hellbent on destroying one another. Any similarity to Murdoch and Ted Turner, Gelbart has claimed, is strictly coincidental.

Byrne is Lionel Powers, inheritor of a media dynasty handed him by his deceased father. He owns TV networks, movie studios, magazines and newspapers. Kingsley is Julian Messenger, European immigrant, World War II survivor and possessor of his own multimedia dynasty.

Powers gets it into his mind to purchase pro football’s Tucson Titans. Unfortunately, so does Messenger, and their joint quest helps set into motion a chain of nasty events and exchanges that take on an increasing air of absurdity.

Without giving away too much, let’s just say that a penile implant becomes ammunition in this topsy-turvy war of hostilities. So does a sex change. And blackmail. Lots and lots of blackmail. The problem with “Weapons” as written by Gelbart and directed, with broad farcical strokes, by Steve Surjik is that the characters are more cartoons than human beings. It’s a tribute to the talent of Byrne and Kingsley (and, in nifty supporting turns, Mimi Rogers, Jeffrey Tambor, R. Lee Ermey and Kathy Baker) that they are able to come across as effectively as they do.

Another significant shortcoming of “Weapons” is an entirely useless subplot featuring Illeana Douglas and Chris Mulkey as Rita and Jerry Pasco, a white-trash couple in Middle America.

The Pascos’ lives are evidently supposed to serve as something of an ironic counterpoint to the chief story of greed, corruption and bad hair days. Instead, it detracts from the main plotline and seems condescending.

It’s too bad, because it’s clear what Gelbart is struggling to say. He wants to show us the degree to which America has lost its moral backbone in the quest for dollars and dominance.

But unlike Gelbart’s previous HBO film — the exquisitely vivid, Emmy-winning “Barbarians at the Gate” — “Weapons of Mass Distraction” is far too enamored of its own cleverness. The satire routinely confuses humor with outrageousness, the rampant silliness overshadowing the dead-on moments.

Tech credits are all first rate.

Weapons of Mass Distraction

HBO, SAT. MAY 17, 8 P.M.

Production: Filmed in Los Angeles by HBO Pictures. Executive producer/writer, Larry Gelbart; producer, Sean Ryerson; director, Steve Surjik; director of photography, Alar Kivilo; production designer, Charles Rosen; editor, Zach Staenberg;

Crew: music, Don Davis; casting, Gary M. Zuckerbrod. 105 MINS.

Cast: Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Ben Kingsley, Mimi Rogers, Jeffrey Tambor, Illeana Douglas, Chris Mulkey, Paul Mazursky, Kathy Baker, R. Lee Ermey, Caroline Aaron, Jason Lee, Christina Pickles, Tom Wright, Randall Arney, Ben Bode.

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