Politics as usual

Though The American President flounders, a radiant Annette Bening makes it worth watching

You can't fault the cast for succumbing to the stuffiness of Reiner's detailed but mopey direction, since they aren't given much of a script to work with. It's practically an unwritten rule in Hollywood that when a young actor is cast playing some indistinguishable policy wonk, his career has officially dried up. (When an actor hits 50, he starts playing starchy generals instead.) Poor Michael J. Fox is cast as the one stalwart in the administration, valiantly holding the torch of liberal idealism even when the other characters forsake it. Of course his short-tempered whining gets vindicated when Shepherd comes to his senses and endorses his original programs; that's when the halo around his head becomes almost blinding.

Anna Deavere Smith plays her part grim and tight, not exactly beneficial qualities in a press secretary. In fact all the staff are undefined and dull, cookie-cutter archetypes of coffee over-achievers. (How soon can I forget the overly familiar image of Martin Sheen, sleeves rolled up, leaning morosely against a pool table at the end of a long day, looking like an alcoholic in a Charter Hospital ad?) I suppose it makes sense that the President's staff, especially the flunky-level assistants (exemplified by his painfully anal personal aide, played with mousy static energy by Samantha Mathis), is whipcracking efficient--they probably never split infinitives and always floss between meals. But it would be nice once in a while to get a sense for these people as humans rather than automatons, to have them goof up or get in touch with each other. (If you doubt that they can be that way, catch The War Room, a documentary of the Clinton campaign.)

The two leading performers fare better, and they have genuine chemistry. Douglas has an unexpectedly convincing presidential mien. He's really underrated as a movie star--not that he's a great actor, but you can always tell that he has a handle on the broad ideas of the movie, and how his character fits in that scheme. While he doesn't have the control to subtly modulate his performance from scene to scene, he conveys themes clearly and precisely--he never seems out of touch with the audience. In one scene, he handles the prosaic silliness of ordering flowers for Sydney with the same deliberative befuddlement of George Bush buying socks at JCPenney; it's probably the most whimsical scene in the movie, but it's also symptomatic of the picture's good-natured but meandering nature.

It's Bening, though, who brightens up the film. As a character, Sydney has the most opportunities to communicate the potential for screwball liveliness, and Bening doesn't miss a beat. It becomes a running gag that she keeps embarrassing herself in front of the President--first by referring to him as a boob while he's standing behind her, then by treating him like a crank caller when he tries to ask her out--but she never reduces it to reflexive shtick. Her profound sense of uneasiness is pitched to comic perfection, and the flustery sense of gratification she feels upon being asked to attend a state dinner is riotous. Bening looks positively luscious, and the screen simply glows whenever she's on. Performances of such captivating spriteliness are rare enough that seeing Bening wink her way through a part of such smart sex appeal is reason alone to recommend The American President.

The American President. Castle Rock Entertainment. Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox. Written by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Rob Reiner. Opens November 17.

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