18 March 2009

Filmbook: "Primary Colors" (1998)

To say I am late to the party to have read PRIMARY COLORS in 2009 is a massive understatement. I remember when the speculation about who was behind the thinly veiled satire of the inside of the Clinton campaign, complete with deeply unflattering portraits of the then-current President and First Lady. But my half-Democratic household never had a copy of the book, so I didn't read it.

PRIMARY COLORS the book, for someone who only knew who the major players were supposed to represent in the roman a clef, was a pleasant romp along a familiar arc (naive newbie gets caught up in larger cause, only to discover ugly side of man and face crisis of conscience). "Primary Colors" the film is an excuse for John Travolta to do his Bill Clinton impression for 140 minutes. Even as as a thinly veiled exposé, the book has some depth, but this movie is all surface; despite being largely faithful to the book, it conveys none of the excitement of the Presidential primary nor the dilemma of the main character.

Perhaps the latter can be chalked up to the charisma-free performance of Adrien Lester as Henry Burton, the naive newbie who gets caught up in the Stanton (Clinton) campaign. Henry is the book's narrator and while he's got a lot to learn, you see that he has some assets that would make the campaign want him for their side. Lester plays Henry by widening his eyes a lot and pulling faces. Travolta's Clinton is not great -- I much prefer Emma Thompson's sensitive yet tense take on Hillary Clinton, which makes her come out a lot better than the book's description of her. (Or is that because it's impossible not to love Thompson in anything?) Be sure to spot Allison Janney in a very small role near the beginning.

Filmbook verdict: Read the book if you haven't already and you think you might be into that sort of thing. Don't see the movie.

1 comment:

Wade Garrett said...

I was disappointed in the movie as a whole, but I believed that it did have a few wonderful parts - namely, everything with Billy Bob Thornton, Larry Hagman, and Kathy Bates. Maura Tierney and Allison Janey are always welcome. The scene at the beginning of the movie with the illiterate short-order chef, and the later scene with John Travolta in the doughnut shop were really well-done. But Travolta's portrayal of Stanton doesn't capture Clinton's Rhodes scholar intelligence, or the weird charisma that makes us want to root for him a little bit even after we've learned how much of a dick he really is. The movie is deeply flawed, but with a couple of changes it could have been really good.