Wag the Dog

The Boston Phoenix

DIRECTED BY: Barry Levinson

REVIEWED: 01-05-98

The notion that politics is show business is taken to woozy heights in Wag the Dog, Barry Levinson's exhilaratingly swift-paced satire. The title emerges from the movie's epigraph -- "A dog wags its tail because the dog is smarter than the tail. If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog" -- and the picture centers on a pair of seasoned dog-waggers. Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) is the adviser brought in clandestinely by top presidential aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) to save her boss's re-election campaign after a "Firefly Girl" accuses him of molesting her during a White House tour. Brean's solution is to start a phony war with Albania to take the heat off the president's sexual indiscretion, and Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) is the Hollywood producer Brean hires to stage it.

Working from a juicy script by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet that has Levinson's fingerprints all over it, these three make a joyous grab at the kind of comic roles that invigorate actors. Watching their scenes together is like tuning into a classic three-hander from the '30s with, say, John Barrymore, Cary Grant, and Rosalind Russell in the leads. Hoffman's Stan Motts, who holds his first meeting with his Washington guests in his private tanning salon, is appalling and endearing, an inspired (and seamless) blend of improvisational energy and self-love. It's a kingpin performance, as definitive in its way as Barrymore's impression of the ego-raging Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe in Twentieth Century (though Motss's narcissism, unlike Jaffe's, has a sweetly indulgent smile on its burnished face) and as acutely observed as Hoffman's loving burlesque of the Method actor in Tootsie.

A new, improved Robert De Niro understates wittily, the reflexes of his dazzling days as a hotshot young star miraculously restored. Anne Heche comes out from behind the underwritten parts she's been struggling with in movies like Donnie Brasco and earns the right to spar with both these men. Heche gives bright-eyed Winifred Ames, the Washington insider who goes Hollywood, a siege mentality and a sputtering neurotic quality. This is the kind of comedy Judy Davis tried to inject into her role as the chief of staff in the brain-dead White House thriller Absolute Power. Heche is luckier -- she has the material to pull it off.

The movie is about how Brean and Motts, with Ames's collusion, transform every obstacle in their path into an inspiration. It's a series of sketches, every one of them memorable. To rev up public sentiment, Stan hires a fresh-faced young actress (Kirsten Dunst), throws a babushka on her, and as she races across a soundstage, miming terror, he dresses up the screen with computer-controlled images that lift her out of the studio and into the streets of a bombed Albanian village. (The prop in her arms metamorphoses before our eyes into a variety of pet animals, settling on a white cat -- the personal choice of the president himself, who phones it in while he's mobilizing the Sixth Fleet.) Willie Nelson plays the musician who comes up with the anthem for the war ("We love our American borders/We guard the American dream"). Then, when the shrewd senator (Craig T. Nelson) who's running against the president undermines Brean's scheme by "ending" the non-war ("How can he end the war? He's not producing this!" is Stan's incredulous response), he and Motss invent a war hero, a POW, and a new song is written to usher him into folk legend. Woody Harrelson, in a hilarious performance, plays the medicated ex-con hired to give this invention flesh and blood.

Wag the Dog has less fat on its bones than anything Levinson has done since Diner -- he shot it in less than a month, and it shows in all the best ways. And except for his translation of Uncle Vanya (the one Andre Gregory used for Vanya on 42nd Street), this is far and away the best work David Mamet has ever had a hand in. You can hear the Mamet trademarks in the script, but here they're conscious rather than self-conscious. Everyone in Wag the Dog is in on the joke; everyone is in top form, including the composer, Mark Knopfler, and especially the editor, Stu Linder. There isn't a sore thumb in the cast, which includes William H. Macy as a CIA honcho, Denis Leary and a dyspeptic Andrea Martin as Heche's helpmates, Suzie Plakson as Motss's assistant, and, in brilliantly conceived bits, Jim Belushi and Merle Haggard. Simultaneously rapid-fire and relaxed, Wag the Dog is a satire with teeth and a vaudeville spirit.

--Steve Vineberg

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Capsule Reviews
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Other Films by Barry Levinson
Disclosure
Liberty Heights
Sleepers
Sphere

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In & Out
The Sum of Us

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