Sunday, November 23, 2008

Josh Brolin takes office in 'W.'

**1/2 out of ****

President George W. Bush is the controversial subject for Oliver Stone's pretentious, gutsy and middling biopic "W."

This film with a simple title sets out to cover Bush's college years through his first term as president. Filmmaker Stone is no stranger to politics after driving his films "JFK" and "Nixon" all the way to the Oscars.

With "W." Stone makes an energetic and entertaining film, but drops the ball when it comes to giving a full view of the man the nation elected -- twice. Rather, he and screenwriter Stanley Weiser (who previously wrote Stone's Oscar-winner "Wall Street") pick an assortment of vignettes that chronicle the president's highs (the first time he meets his wife Laura) and lows, which in this film are plenty.

Stone spices up the conventional story telling, injecting interesting imaginary sequences that Bush uses as analogies, such as playing baseball to a cheering crowd as one-time owner of the Texas Rangers.

The main draw of "W." isn't the plot or the direction, but the film's first-rate actors and their impersonations of recent historical figures. Much like the excitement of Tina Fey portraying Sarah Palin on "Saturday Night Live," the whole film feels rather SNL-ish with more moments of laughter than one would expect in a historical drama.

Josh Brolin ("No Country for Old Men") goes beyond the call of duty as commander in chief, having everything from Bush's walk to his talk mastered.

Jeffrey Wright ("Casino Royale") does an amiable job as Secretary of Defense Colin Powell, but grows affected during his long monologues. Elizabeth Banks ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin") is a standout as Laura Bush in select scenes. Richard Dreyfuss nicely plays a subdued Richard Cheney, unlike the funny-yet-over-the-top Toby Jones ("The Mist") as Bush's right-hand man Carl Rove. James Cromwell ("24") gives a zesty performance as Bush's always expecting Poppy and Ellen Burstyn ("The Wicker Man") is convincing in a hammed-up portrayal of Barbara Bush.

With the cast's fine performances, it is easy to tell that the normally elegant Thandie Newton ("Norbit") gets the lowest approval rating. Newton falls flat on her face in an over-the-top caricature of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice that leaves you cringing at her voice and facial impersonations.

It is not hard to read between the lines to figure out director Oliver Stone's less-than-favorable opinion of our 43rd president. "W." is still a moderately fair portrait of the man.

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