January 27, 1998
WAG THE DOG is the new comedy by Barry Levinson, and it has all the right elements for success. The screenplay was co-written by David Mamet ("Glengarry Glen Ross", "The Untouchables", "American Buffalo") and the cast includes two of the most highly acclaimed actors in the business today, Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro. The premise of the movie is that the government produces a fake war with Albania using the help of Hollywood producer extraordinare Dustin Hoffman. The bits of the war filmed are shown on television in order to divert the public's attention from the scandals that are circulating about the president's infidelity with an underaged female. The plot eventually grows weary, however, and evolves exactly as the viewer would expect. Although there are many nice elements to the movie (in particular excellent acting and humorous script), WAG THE DOG fails to hit it big because of poor production and a predictable plot.
WAG THE DOG is Barry Levinson's strongest movie since "Bugsy" because it combines the satirical wit and strong performances which have made his better movies so strong. Hoffman gives a phenomenal performance as an egomaniacal Hollywood producer. He is just what you think a producer would be -- gaudy, intelligent, and smooth, but all the while unsatisfied with wealth because of a lack of fame. DeNiro is as good as always playing a slightly atypical role. He is an under spoken, conniving, Presidential advisor. He understands his role in the scheme of things and he is content. The two characters produce an enjoyable dichotomy because they play their roles perfectly. Had either one of them exaggerated or toned down their performances anymore, the characters would have failed producing such a comic punch. Willie Nelson is absolutely hysterical in perhaps the funniest role in the film as the not-so-bright musician who possesses only enough intelligence for him to think of his music and nothing else. He plays himself. He delivers lines such as, "I can't think of anything that rhymes with Albania" with an authority that even well-trained comedic actors can't fake. Woody Harrelson is also amusing as the supposed war hero who is in reality an insane imbecillic convict charged for raping a nun. He overdoes it a little bit, but it would be hard not to in that type of role. The one thing that separates this film from Levinson's better films ("Diner", "Good Morning, Vietnam", "The Natural", "Rain Man") is the feel of the movie. While his other movies were characterized by their grandiose style which recalled the Golden Age of Hollywood at its best, this film has a very up-to-date feel which Levinson can't quite seem to put together tastefully. The movie tries to maintain a fast pace in order to obscure the predictable plot, but it makes the film unpleasing aesthetically. It has the essence of a perfume advertisement or a live sporting event. The shots are perhaps too clean and concise, and the viewer is given no space to breathe. The plot is not the greatest, either. Although it boasts an intelligent premise with a smart crack on society's dependence on media for their knowledge of reality, the movie never quite seems to answer the question that it poses. It devolves into a battle of strength between Hollywood and government, instead of a battle of strength between media and reality. If one wishes to argue that Hollywood and government are analogous of media and reality, I would argue that government is by no means an absolute reality. Does the tail wag the dog, or does it merely attempt to wag the dog? The plot confuses these two elements of the movie, for while media controls the reality of the situation, the government proceeds to control Hollywood. Levinson does not exactly hit it strong this time. The movie is funny, enjoyable, and more thought provoking than most movies out now, but the movie is confused. Not altogether original in idea (see "Canadian Bacon" by Michael Moore), the strong performances of Hoffman and DeNiro couple with an intelligent and humorous script to make this movie worth watching, but the plot's confused and under-developed nature prevents the movie from being a must see. ***
-- Matt Kessler