The Raw Deal
By Carl Kozlowski
It’s always sad when beloved movie stars die, even when fans hear of their passing long after their acting career ended. But a far stranger mix of emotions comes into play when one considers a superstar actor who turns his back on what made him great and abandons the style that made him so beloved.
A perfect case arrives this week with Bill Murray, who portrays President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the new film Hyde Park on Hudson. One can see why Murray, who has embraced more dramatic and nuanced performances over the past 15 years, would want to take on the iconic role, but the shocking thing about it is that neither he nor the movie ever bothers to give the enterprise a pulse or even one iota of interesting material for the viewer.
Much like another currently released snoozer about a president, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Hyde doesn’t bother to tell the life story of FDR. Rather, it focuses on a narrow slice of his illustrious life.
However, while Lincoln bored with its endless depictions of the behind-the-scenes machinations employed to pass the Thirteenth Amendment and free America’s slaves, it at least had a towering lead performance from Daniel Day-Lewis and a sense there was a compelling goal to be earned.
Hyde has neither of these and instead focuses solely on a weekend spent at Roosevelt’s titular private retreat in which he welcomed the King and Queen of England as they sought America’s help in standing up to the Nazis. This might be fairly exciting or at least engaging if there were any depiction of the danger encroaching upon England. But that doesn’t happen. Here, the story focuses on the mere show of friendship between the British king and the American president, punctuated by such thrilling plot points as FDR’s staff nervously waiting to see if the royal guests will be offended by being served hot dogs at a picnic.
Yes, you read right. The decision whether or not to serve hot dogs to the visiting monarchs, and other such banal quandaries, takes up the vast majority of the film’s running time. The rest consists of following the bizarre relationship between FDR and Daisy, a fifth-cousin brought out to the retreat ostensibly to assist the president who quickly finds that she’s mainly there to supply him with hand jobs, which, despite FDR’s crippling polio, the president was apparently able to enjoy.
Again, you read right. Within the first 10 minutes of this film (a term I use loosely here, because of the complete lack of effort by anyone involved to fashion anything artistic or entertaining) FDR is racing his car through country roads and into a field of flowers, where he takes Daisy’s hand and guides it to his knee and then—thankfully—off-screen. While the actual deed is left unseen, one can tell by their facial gestures she’s not taking dictation.
Daisy is played by Laura Linney, normally one of America’s fiercely talented and unpredictable actresses. But in this film, Linney is reduced to pining for the president and mumbling some of the most dispassionate voiceover narration ever committed to celluloid. It’s as if she’s actually competing against the audience to see who can fall asleep first, despite the fact she, at least, collected a paycheck for the hopeless enterprise.
Rarely has a major-studio film (blame Universal’s Focus Features art house division) been made in such an utterly inert fashion. Given two of the most famous leaders of the 20th century to play with in FDR and King Philip (the same monarch who was the focus of 2010’s vastly superior The King’s Speech), writer Richard Nelson and director Roger Michell do nothing dynamic with the meeting. There is no character definition or development, no story arc and not one moment worth pinning interest upon. It’s utterly shocking to think this was financed as anything other than a tax write-off.
But most of all, the blame has to be placed on Murray, who used to thrill audiences with anarchic and utterly unpredictable energy but who nowadays seems interested only in rehashing the same highly mannered and low-key performance in Wes Anderson films or trying to prove he can do drama in snooty films like this.
The world could use a jolt of the cinematic electricity Murray used to bring to the screen, but sadly, he has taken a little too much of FDR into his personality and comes off as paralyzed by pretension.
FDR may have given us the New Deal, but here Bill Murray and company just give us a raw one. For now, my gift to you is the advice to avoid the cinematic turkey that is Hyde Park on Hudson and instead enjoy a real one this holiday season.