Glib cynicism isn’t a tremendously appealing quality, but in “Wag the Dog” it at least has the benefit of comic precision and polished handling. Considering that a similar attitude colors “The Edge,” among other creations by co-scripter David Mamet, and sandbags such Barry Levinson films as “Jimmy Hollywood,” its more successful airing here proves the importance of shrewd execution, and perhaps of allowing the audience to feel superior too. Pic satirizes media culture in a way that hardly delivers real insight or pungency, but shrewdly flatters the educated viewer’s knowingness. That, plus welcome concision and a deftly hilarious turn by Dustin Hoffman, should help build a solid constituency for pic, especially given a careful rollout and maximum use of critical kudos.
“Wag” was shot in under a month for $15 million by the production companies of stars Hoffman and Robert De Niro and helmer Levinson, so its profitability might inspire other big names to such tactical economies. The first question to be answered at the B.O., though, is exactly how far outside the nation’s media centers pic’s insiderish, referential comedy will play; premise concerns D.C. spinmeisters joining with Hollywoodians to create a quick TV war to distract from presidential peccadilloes. In this regard, Hoffman’s bravura turn may prove a litmus test. Though satiric, the grandiose producer he plays is goofily flattering to Hollywood’s self-image. But will the rest of the nation care as much about movie-producer jokes?
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While it has loose precedents ranging from “A Face in the Crowd” to “Bob Roberts,” pic’s premise, which was adapted by Mamet and Hilary Henkin from Larry Beinhart’s novel “American Hero,” contains an obvious timeliness. Two weeks before he’s up for re-election, the president (Michael Belson) is accused of accosting a Girl Scout in the Oval Office. Before the news reaches the media his advisers, led by Winifred Ames (Anne Heche), call in a mysterioso political consultant, Conrad Brean (De Niro), who specializes in such near-impossible image rescues.
Cool and rumpled, Brean first advises that the president be detained in China by an invented ailment, then that the press be fed denials concerning the B-3 bomber and a secret mission by one of the joint chiefs of staff to the aviation industry in the Northwest. Of course there’s no such thing as a B-3 bomber and no secret mission, so the denials are all perfectly true. The ruse is to buy time by whipping up an aura of impending national crisis.
For the crisis itself, Brean jets off to Hollywood and the mansion of producer Stanley Motss (Hoffman). A caricature come to life, with his carefully cultivated tan, tennis togs and immaculately upswept hairdo, Motss seems to live to kvetch that producers get no credit. So he jumps at the chance to do something really important in orchestrating a patriotic campaign aimed against the enemy du jour picked rather impulsively by Brean: Albania.
Motss’ creative team, trendsters Fad King (Denis Leary) and Liz Butsky (Andrea Martin) and songwriter Johnny Green (Willie Nelson), takes a cue from the Gulf War by treating its task as an advertising campaign complete with theme song, heart-tugging symbols and scenes of action that go directly from a Hollywood soundstage to CNN. When it transpires that one additional element is needed, the gang cooks up a downed pilot who’s finally “rescued,” but in real life turns out to be incarnated by a psycho military prisoner (Woody Harrelson) with the personality of a time bomb.
Ultimately, pic stands to divide viewers between those annoyed by its smug obviousness and those who relish being wise to its pop-culture jibes. One undeniable virtue, though, is that at slightly over an hour and a half, it doesn’t risk running its skit-like premise into the ground. The pacing is crisp, the dialogue quippy and fast, the tone arch but energetic. If Levinson’s direction itself seems cynically glib, with its TV visual mannerisms and air of superficiality, that at least fits the film’s general mood and themes.
It also has an anchor in the sharp work of Hoffman, whose self-infatuated producer is a droll comic portrait of extraordinary freshness and satiric force. Motss may finally be more a shtick than a character, but he’s a delightful, memorable one.
Among other players, De Niro seems to hang back to let his co-star have a clear field, which could be read as either generosity or a lack of ideas for the fuzzily defined Brean. Heche, who also has a lot of screen time, is De Niro’s opposite; where he’s too relaxed and vague, she’s too tightly wound and brittle with self-consciousness.
Pic’s generally cut-above tech credits include smart, nimble lensing by Robert Richardson.