Rated R - Running time: 2:23 - Released 3/20/98

At the end of Primary Colors, there is a credit that says, "Based on a novel by Anonymous." How telling. It would only be fitting that a crass, sophomoric opus like this, designed to malign a president and his party, would be penned by someone who hasn't the guts to own up. But I'm not at all convinced that this movie is what it seems. The script is so heavy handed, I can't imagine its writer expecting to be taken seriously.

Not that it doesn't have good performances. John Travolta continues to establish himself as one of the best actors of the younger generation, and this may be his best job yet. There is no doubt that his character is supposed to resemble Bill Clinton. Two sex scandals and a shady real estate deal prove that. And his impression of the president is better than Darrell Hammond's. But he isn't just doing an imitation act here. He allows the character to breathe, to be part of himself. He gives him a life separate from the reigning commander in chief.

The main character and protagonist of this movie is really not southern Governor Jack Stanton (Travolta), who is running for the Democratic nomination. It is Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), a young black man enlisted to help with the campaign. He is at first portrayed as a conscientious idealist who wants to take part in something meaningful. And for some reason, despite the infantile behavior of Stanton and the rude cynicism of everyone else involved in the campaign, he decides that Stanton is "the real thing." Lester is the one weak link in the otherwise excellent cast; he's obviously out of his league here. But it may be that he's just confused about how to play such a conflicting role — his lines don't make sense in the context. If you or I were to witness the behavior that Henry does in the first half hour of the movie, we'd be out of there. But he becomes a disciple.

This screenplay, by Joe Klein (formerly "Anonymous") and Elaine May, is supposed to portray Stanton as a down-home country boy who occasionally shows an inner light, and there are a few moments where we see that, but it's usually dampened by some rude remark or stupid statement. His tough-as-nails wife Susan (played by Emma Thompson, who comfortably dons an American accent), is obviously Hillary, and Thompson does her usual impeccable job. Again, it's the script that lets her down.

Another excellent actress saddled with a stupid role is Kathy Bates, who plays a family friend Susan hires to track down possible weaknesses that could be exploited by the other side. Bates's delivery is good, and her emotion is genuine, but her ultimate statement is ridiculously melodramatic. Supporting performances by people like Billy Bob Thornton, Maura Tierney (NewsRadio) and Robert Klein add to the quality, but the silliness of the script shows through.

I think we're being hoodwinked here. Maybe this movie was actually produced by Democrats, trying to make us think it was done by Republicans, trying to make the president look bad. Getting complicated, eh? Well, it comes down to this: it depends on which party thinks the American public is more stupid, and to what depths that party is prepared to go to malign the other side. Yeah, it's definitely a poser. ***½

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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