Helmer finds his footing in edgier material

ollywood insiders have an aversion to political controversy, but Jay Roach seems to court it.

Yes, that Jay Roach. A shy, shaggy-haired director best known for broad comedies like the “Austin Powers” pics and “Meet the Fockers,” Roach has unexpectedly emerged as an edgy political satirist — and his work is generating the noise level to prove it.

Roach’s latest, “Game Change,” an HBO movie that debuted this weekend, is a searing, behind-the-scenes profile of Sarah Palin in the weeks after her selection as John McCain’s running mate. Palin defenders are aggressively on the war path, denouncing Roach as a liberal ideologue.

The soft-spoken filmmaker is hardly an ideologue; he’s not even much of a liberal. But his career transformation from shtick to satire marks one of the stranger career paths of the directing fraternity.

Here’s the big news: “Game Change” is a cool, clever movie that exhibits great discipline in portraying McCain as sympathetic and Palin as empathetic. But their coming together represents surely the most inept shotgun marriage of its era.

The movie is also a great showcase for the talents of Julianne Moore, who plays Palin, Ed Harris as McCain and Woody Harrelson, who brilliantly crafts his perf as Steve Schmidt, McCain’s impulsive campaign strategist.

Two years ago Roach delivered another savvy political comedy titled “Recount,” which dealt with the Florida voting scandal that decided the 2000 presidential election. And he has just rapped yet another political comedy titled “The Campaign” for theatrical release at Warner Bros. (Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis co-star.)

But Roach, whose style is both unassuming and deflective, insists there’s no master plan behind this. He says he was working on a tame non-political comedy when Sydney Pollack, who was then prepping “Recount” for HBO, called to say he was too sick to shoot the movie (Pollack died a few months later).

“I didn’t know much about the subject matter,” Roach recalls, “But I have a tendency to throw myself into things I’m not sure I can do. I think I’m addicted to being terrified.”

Roach insists his “Austin Powers” involvement was also an inadvertency, not a game plan. When Mike Myers urged him to take it on, he pointed out that he was unschooled in comedy. Roach ended up directing the movie, which was hugely successful and generated two sequels. He then directed two installments in the Fockers trilogy and went on to produce the two Sacha Baron Cohen pics “Borat” and “Bruno.”

Roach has thus succeeded in making a vast amount of money from comedy, all the while insisting that’s not his specialty. Indeed, he goes out of his way to avoid saying anything in any way comical.

“I prepared for the Austin Powers movies by watching lots of Woody Allen and Monty Python,” Roach declares. “I guess I decided, like John McCain, to be a ‘risk taker.’?”

McCain’s scenario of risk, of course, led to his choice of Palin as a running mate even though his aides had vetted her record only superficially. Unnerved by the profound impact of Barack Obama’s oratory, McCain wanted a rock star on his side, too.

Palin had the self-confidence of a rock star but “Game Change,” in scene after scene, portrays her astonishing ignorance of the real world and her inability to absorb coaching.

Julianne Moore’s performance deviates sharply from Tina Fey’s famous impersonations. When Palin experiences her mid-campaign nervous breakdown, the response from the audience is to empathize, not smirk. The behind-the-scenes insights in “Game Change” emanate from the script by Danny Strong, which in turn was based on the book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. (Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman produced.)

Jay Roach last week was trekking between high-profile HBO screenings in Washington D.C. and New York, wearing his customary look of resigned apprehension. He then will finish editing “The Candidate,” which he describes as a more aggressively comedic portrait of two warring candidates running for Congress in North Carolina. Then, sticking with politics, he aims to do a serious film about Mark Felt, the long-mysterious figure who turned out to be the real Deep Throat in the Watergate case.

Does this mean Jay Roach, the one-time master of lighter-than-air comedy, plans to focus on social issues as his subject matter?

“Not necessarily,” Roach cautions. “My career is really based on a series of accidents and flukey breaks. Things have a way of coming to me.”

Based on his success record, I have a feeling the “accidents” will continue to be political in subject matter.

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