31 OCTOBER 1998, Page 62


Primary Colors (15, selected cinemas)

Fading interest

Mark Steyn

Primary Colors opened in America a few • weeks after Monica hit the front pages in what was frankly a crowded market for Clinton pictures: there was not only Prima- ry Colors, but also Wag the Dog The Full Monty, Slick Will Hunting . . . So, despite the buzz, Colors was a wash-out, and studio execs spent much time speculating on why: scandal overload, no market for political flicks, etc. What no one mentioned was that just about everyone involved — direc- tor/producer Mike Nichols, screenwriter Elaine May, star John Travolta, supporting actor Billy Bob Thornton — is a Clinton supporter and that this is not perhaps the best starting point for effective satire. Per- haps that's why the film version manages to be incredibly faithful to Joe Klein's novel and yet completely miss its gleeful insanity.

For example, in the book, Jack Stanton, the Clinton figure, winds up in the wee small hours at the Krispy Kreme donut shop, sitting at the counter babbling away to the disabled clerk. In Klein's novel, the scene conveys the manic, overstimulated energy of Stanton: he cannot leave, he can- not quit yakking. In Nichols and May's ver- sion, the same scene with the same donuts and the same clerk shows us instead, with the help of the orchestral accompaniment, how Stanton cares for the little people: `You let a man like that go down, you don't deserve to take up space on this planet, do you?'

In Klein's novel, Stanton says that kind of thing, too, but only because he has a dizzyingly multi-layered hollowness: beneath the surface is just more surface. Nichols and May take the schmooze at face value: this may be touchingly sincere on their part, but in comedic terms it's a disas- ter. Every hilarious little riff — the all- night `mommathon' in which Jack and his cronies blub about their mommas and sing `You Are My Sunshine'; the impenetrable rural analogies about hunters taking a shit in the woods; the Jewish talk-show host who only wants to ask the candidate what his favourite Vegas hotel is — all of these are almost immediately derailed by pon- derous agonising about compromised prin- ciples and lost idealism. As we've seen from the great non-tide of resignations in the last few weeks, there's not a lot of that going on in the Clinton circle. But then pure satire rarely survives the Hollywood process. Travolta has put on weight and mastered most of the touchy- feely pouty-schmoozy mannerisms; Emma Thompson decided not to go for the pros- thetically enhanced ankles, but she's cer- tainly got the brisk, all-business grating whine, like the robotic voice in your car that tells you to fasten your seatbelt. But both performances undermine their char- acters: Travolta can do likeable, but not the ferocious narcissistic temper tantrums of Klein's Stanton; Miss Thompson's Susan Stanton has none of the ruthless calcula- tion of the novel. Indeed, all the vicious women in the book have been defanged.

The key line in the film is delivered by Stanton's aide Daisy (Maura Tierney): `They say Hitler never looked at another woman after he met Eva Braun. Does that make him better than Kennedy?' Er, no and, when the film opened in February, such a fatuous argument was strictly the province of Hollywood, where monogamy is so rare (and indeed so disapproved of) that it's easy to believe it's merely the first step on the slippery slope to genocidal maniac. But, in the months since the film was released and sank without trace, such rationalisations have been embraced by the wider world. So Clinton's a philanderer? Well, hey, 'Hitler was monogamous,' warned Richard Cohen in the Washington Post the other day. What was self-evidently ludicrous about Primary Colors at the beginning of the year now seems weirdly prescient. One line is especially pertinent: `It's the shit no one ever calls you on because you're so fuckin' special,' lesbian trouble-shooter Libby (Kathy Bates) sneers sarcastically to Stanton. That's the most amazing thing: they're still not calling Clin- ton on his shit because he's so fuckin' spe- cial. But why? Alas, Nichols and May get so bogged down in plot mechanics that all the craziness of the novel drains away.

So, if you're looking for a Clinton biopic, my advice is go the video store and rent Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery, a subtly disguised roman a Clint in which Mike Myers plays the Clinton figure, a ludicrous Sixties swinger for whom the last `Trick or threat, um, I mean treat.' 30 years might just as well have never hap- pened. A living anachronism in his medal- lion, crushed-velvet Nehru jacket and ruffled cuffs, Clinton Powers staggers from one woman to another, going 'Hey, baby, fancy a shag?' and then dropping his flares. A brainy feminist colleague played by Eliz- abeth Hurley (the Gloria Steinem charac- ter) tries to explain that in the Nineties men respect women and no longer assume they're gagging to be shagged senseless. But she soon decides to put up with the incorrigible old groover because he's the only man who can save the world from 'a vast right-wing conspiracy'. And besides, like most women, she finds it rather cute when he says, `Shagadelic, baby. Wanna take a peek at me wedding tackle?'