1998, R, 143 min. Directed by Mike Nichols. Starring John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Adrian Lester, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, Maura Tierney, Larry Hagman, Paul Guilfoyle.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., March 27, 1998
It's uncanny: the pasty, puffy physique; the graying blow-dried hair; the throaty drawl; the direct eye contact; the instincts of a born politician. But for all the detail captured by Travolta in his role as the Clintonesque presidential candidate, Jack Stanton, in Primary Colors, it's really more an impersonation than a performance. It -- like the movie -- eludes the integral question: “What makes Jackie run?” Based on the infamous bestselling roman a clef by “Anonymous” (otherwise known as journalist Joe Klein), Primary Colors tells the story of the improbable candidacy of a Southern governor running for President whose out-of-nowhere campaign in the primaries must constantly deal with one obstacle or another, all having to do with the character (or lack thereof) of the man running for office. Of course, as you might guess, his main problem is his penchant for extracurricular bedroom activities with women other than his ambitious and supportive wife (valiantly played by Thompson), who compromises her pride in the quest of power. (She's part Lady Macbeth, part Tammy Wynette.) There's no novelty in the plot contrivances in Primary Colors because you've seen it already ad nauseam on television, in the newspapers, seemingly everywhere. Consequently, the movie seems enervated; it never really rollicks like a good political satire. (The marketing department for the film's distributor, Universal Pictures, must have viewed the latest accusations of sexual impropriety against Clinton as both a godsend and a curse.) The behind-the-scenes perspective of the campaign trail will probably interest novices to the process, particularly the parrying and feinting in which candidates engage. But such rules of the political game are often as ridiculous as they are interesting, coming off like nothing more than an amusement for grown-ups. As the film's Candide, the polite and overwhelmed Henry Burton, Lester attempts to convey a character with a wavering moral center, but his role is too sketchy to carry the film toward some true meaning. As it turns out, it's Bates' turn as a hard-nosed, profane “Dustbuster” who uncovers who's got what on Stanton, her lifelong friend, that's really the meat and potatoes of Primary Colors. But by the time that the import of her role is revealed, you don't care one way or another how it all comes out because the Elaine May script has distilled everything into a mush of oversimplified ethics. It's clear then that the true colors of Primary Colors are black and white.