Magazine article The Spectator

Fading Interest

Magazine article The Spectator

Fading Interest

Article excerpt

Primary Colors opened in America a few weeks after Monica hit the front pages in what was frankly a crowded market for Clinton pictures: there was not only Primary Colors, but also Wag the Dog The Full Monty, Slick Will Hunting . . So, despite the buzz, Colors was a wash-out, and studio execs spent much time speculating on why: scandal overload, no market for political flicks, etc. What no one mentioned was that just about everyone involved- director/producer Mike Nichols, screenwriter Elaine May, star John Travolta, supporting actor Billy Bob Thornton- is a Clinton supporter and that this is not perhaps the best starting point for effective satire. Perhaps that's why the film version manages to be incredibly faithful to Joe Klein's novel and yet completely miss its gleeful insanity.

For example, in the book, Jack Stanton, the Clinton figure, winds up in the wee small hours at the Krispy Kreme donut shop, sitting at the counter babbling away to the disabled clerk. In Klein's novel, the scene conveys the manic, overstimulated energy of Stanton: he cannot leave, he cannot quit yakking. In Nichols and May's version, the same scene with the same donuts and the same clerk shows us instead, with the help of the orchestral accompaniment, how Stanton cares for the little people: 'You let a man like that go down, you don't deserve to take up space on this planet, do you?'

In Klein's novel, Stanton says that kind of thing, too, but only because he has a dizzyingly multi-layered hollowness: beneath the surface is just more surface. Nichols and May take the schmooze at face value: this may be touchingly sincere on their part, but in comedic terms it's a disaster. Every hilarious little riff - the allnight 'mommathon' in which Jack and his cronies blub about their mommas and sing 'You Are My Sunshine'; the impenetrable rural analogies about hunters taking a shit in the woods; the Jewish talk-show host who only wants to ask the candidate what his favourite Vegas hotel is - all of these are almost immediately derailed by ponderous agonising about compromised principles and lost idealism. As we've seen from the great non-tide of resignations in the last few weeks, there's not a lot of that going on in the Clinton circle.

But then pure satire rarely survives the Hollywood process. Travolta has put on weight and mastered most of the touchyfeely pouty-schmoozy mannerisms; Emma Thompson decided not to go for the prosthetically enhanced ankles, but she's certainly got the brisk, all-business grating whine, like the robotic voice in your car that tells you to fasten your seatbelt. …

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