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Too much and too little focus

While John Kennedy and Bill Clinton’s sexual shenanigans have been the butt of decades of jokes and one impeachment trial, compared to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his multiple long-term mistresses – one of whom was his cousin – Kennedy and Clinton were amateurs.

FDR may be one of our greatest presidents, leading the country from the depths of the worst economic crisis in modern history to the end of World War II but he was, to say the least, a complicated man.

At the same time he was looked to as the country’s wholesome and charismatic father figure, his marriage to Eleanor was remarkably untraditional, especially for a time of such Puritan conformity.

The story of FDR and his harem could make a great movie. Unfortunately, when Richard Nelson and Roger Michell made it, it was Hyde Park on Hudson, and it’s not great.

In June 1939, FDR (Bill Murray), his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) and his mother (Elizabeth Wilson) are preparing for the arrival at their Hyde Park, New York home of King Edward and Queen Elizabeth, who are visiting the United States.

Edward is trying to convince FDR to pledge support for Britain, which is certainly about to enter another war with Germany. Watching all of this, and narrating the movie, is FDR’s fifth cousin (or sixth, “depending on how you count”) Margaret Suckley, known as Daisy (Laura Linney), a sweet, mousey woman who is having an affair with the president and who is wildly out of her league.

On the weekend that Edward and Elizabeth visit, Daisy discovers that her arrangement with FDR is much more complicated than she imagined. It’s thrown into relief in a particularly glaring way by the obsessive, nervous propriety of the British royals, who are almost flummoxed by things like the confident first lady, untrained servants and hot dogs.

This all sounds rather fun and engaging when described in paragraph. But there’s too much, and not enough focus. The main reason the movie fails is that it’s not only about FDR and his ever increasing coterie of mistresses it’s also about Bill Murray, in a wheelchair, meeting a broadly comic version of two of the main characters in The King’s Speech.

And it’s about the hilarity of an exasperated help staff. And it’s about the Depression, and class and the difference between American and British pomp and circumstance. It’s an entire season of Downtown Abbey crammed into little less than two hours.

Of all of this, FDR’s love life is the only part that the art house movie audiences haven’t been inundated with over the last decade, but it’s lost in the clichés of awards season costume dramas.

While I think the over-stuffed and somewhat vapid screenplay is mostly to blame, the leads do not help.

Bill Murray’s impersonation of FDR is fine; you will forget that it’s Bill Murray, which is no easy task. But unlike, say, Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock, it’s never more than an impersonation.

I never felt a genuine emotion from Murray’s FDR, just ticks, quips and grins.

Linney, who is almost always fantastic, is surprisingly dull throughout most of the film, only showing some dynamism and depth during a climactic revelation. She’s certainly underwritten and underdeveloped, but she is also at fault for failing to be convincingly in love with FDR. Wide eyed and bashful, she seems mostly in awe. I guess that could be enough, considering how awesome FDR was.


Hyde Park on Hudson

Directed by Roger Michell

Written by Richard Nelson

Starring Bill Murray, Laura Linney and Samuel West

Rated R

At Landmark Hillcrest

Opens Dec. 14

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Posted by on Dec 13, 2012. Filed under Movie Review. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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