‘Primary’ satire swaddled in sleaze

MEMO
TO: Mike Nichols
FROM: Peter Bart

NEW YORK — I’VE GOT TO HAND it to you, Mike — everyone here is talking about your new movie, “Primary Colors,” and just about every columnist is pontificating about it.

But here’s the rub: Some of us have the uneasy feeling that, while you’ve delivered a provocative film, it isn’t the one you promised. What you’ve given us is “Carnal Knowledge II.”

The bestseller on which you based your movie offered some sly insights into the political process. It showed how a group of savvy political warriors could become slavishly devoted to an enigmatic political figure who was at once brilliant and intensely sleazy.

In creating your movie, Mike, you made a firm resolve not to back away from the sleaze, which is understandable. But here’s where your luck may have deserted you.

Your movie has opened smack in the middle of a media firestorm, and many of us frankly are turned off by Monica, Paula and Kathleen, not to mention Bubba himself. Enough already!

YET YOUR MOVIE SAILS right into these troubled waters — and then some. Instead of depicting a generic president (like Michael Douglas in “An American President”), you zeroed right in on Bubba. John Travolta doesn’t just depict him, he impersonates him, or at least part of him. Travolta conveys the down-home folksiness, the appetites, the energy, but there’s something missing.

“President Stanton,” who holds center stage in your movie, possesses about as much intellectual horsepower as, well, John Travolta. Forget being Rhodes Scholar material — he would have flunked the Scientology Academy.

Hence the audience is left wondering why all his astute camp followers would remain loyal to a shallow, pedophilic hayseed.

In your myriad press interviews, Mike, you’ve done a bit of a tap dance around all this. You told the Los Angeles Times: “This isn’t a movie about politics. It’s a movie about the problems dealing with the sexuality of our leaders.” OK, I get it.

Then you told the New York Times: “It’s not about Clinton, but about the ‘Clinton thing.’ It’s about our process and where we’ve brought it and where it brought us.” OK, I don’t get it.

LET’S SWEEP AWAY the muddy rhetoric, Mike, and analyze what you’ve done here. In creating your often witty, occasionally harsh satire, you’ve scaled down your protagonist into a stick figure in a Nichols-and-May skit. And you’ve chosen a weird time to do it.

Let me inject here that I am hardly a knee-jerk Clinton loyalist. I’ve voted Republican far more often than I’ve voted Democratic.

At the same time, I am a bit of a sentimentalist when it comes to fairness and historical accuracy. And if you decide to portray a specific political figure, it seems to me that you owe your audience a reasonably rounded portrayal. Something better than what you’ve delivered.

THE FASCINATING QUESTION, Mike, is whether the public will buy it. Moviegoers have exhibited a fondness for the cool, somewhat weirded-out Travolta of “Get Shorty” and “Pulp Fiction.” They didn’t seem to like him as the psycho in “Mad City.” Thus it’s hard to guess the reaction to the Travolta of “Primary Colors,” in which he essentially plays a cool, weirded-out psycho.

Given your narrow satiric aims, Mike, Travolta, to be sure, turned in a persuasive performance. I can think of only one other actor who could have conveyed your image of Bill Clinton, and he apparently wasn’t available. Has anyone seen Elvis lately?

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