By Christy Lemire
AP Movie Critic
All he wanted to do was watch baseball and drink beer all day. Sounds like a reasonable request. Instead, George W. Bush ended up being chosen as leader of the free world. Twice.
That's Oliver Stone's surprisingly fair and balanced assessment of the president, who truly needs no further parodying, in "W."
Bush is an easy target anyway, and he inadvertently supplies enough ammunition on his own without anyone else's help. From the earliest announcements about the film , it seemed inevitable what we'd be in for: an evisceration.
No other perspective could be possible from any director in Hollywood and especially not from Stone, who previously dug up the White House dirt with the conspiracy-laden "JFK" and the campy and paranoid "Nixon."
And he's rushing it into theaters so it arrives before Americans go to the polls to choose their next president. Surely he must have an agenda.
Instead, Stone has come up with a rather conventional biopic, albeit one about a person whose decisions have affected the entire planet for the past eight years.
Considering its potential shock value, "W." hits all the expected notes. It could be "Walk the Line," it could be "Ray." We see young Dubya as a drunk fraternity pledge at Yale University, where he foreshadows his legendary method of handing out nicknames during a hazing ritual; as a swaggering party boy meeting Laura Welch, the woman who would become his wife and his rock, at a backyard barbecue; and as a reluctant worker in the West Texas oil fields, where he asks in twangy Spanish before noon, "Donde esta la cerveza?" - "Where is the beer?"
He runs for Congress and loses, runs for Texas governor and wins, loses the booze and finds the Lord. He buys the Texas Rangers, and baseball-as-metaphor serves as a leaping-off point for the few flights of fancy Stone takes in this otherwise straightforward film (which is an atypical aesthetic choice for him). All well-documented stuff. (And among Bush's greatest hits, we get treated to flubs including, "Is our children learning?" "misunderestimated" and his famous botching of the phrase "fool me once, shame on you.")
Stone, working from a script by Stanley Weiser, doesn't provide much new insight on the 43rd President of the United States and often tries to explain away Bush's foibles and flaws with pop-psychology regarding his "daddy issues."
In the most fundamental terms, Stone says that Bush waged war in Iraq to please his father, a cold, patrician man who only paid attention to his son, whom he so derisively referred to as "Junior," when politics were involved. Bush, in turn, still eagerly addresses his father as "Poppy" well into adulthood - and such details infuse "W." with steady, satirical laughs throughout.
As Bush himself, Josh Brolin certainly gets the innate humor within the frequent buffoonery - and he's got the voice and the demeanor down pat - but he also seems to recognize the tragedy of this figure, a man who was in way over his head for one of the world's most complicated jobs.
There's a scene in "W." where Bush is tossing a tennis ball to his aging springer spaniel, Spotty, on the White House lawn, and she just isn't into playing fetch the way she used to; she just doesn't have the energy anymore. He seems more moved by this development than by any other, although the moment takes place during the infancy of the Iraq War; recalling the spirit of her youth, he says wistfully that she could have been "the DiMaggio of dogs." And you realize then that he was, and is, just a simple guy - not necessarily good or bad.
Stone simiarly sought to show both sides of a divisive leader in his 1995 Richard Nixon opus. Brolin's so good, he almost makes us feel sorry for Bush. Almost. But then you remember the many deadly consequences of Bush's more questionable executive decisions.
Again, though, Stone depicts going to war in Iraq as a wave Bush got caught up in, one that originated with Vice President Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), men to whom he deferred for wisdom before hollowly insisting, "I'm a decider."
Like many of the actors in the film , Dreyfuss has perfected the look and the cadence of the real-life person he plays, but he never strays into "Saturday Night Live" territory. He's really acting beneath the act, which is strikingly clear in a Machiavellian monologue he delivers about the need for the United States to take over the Middle East for its oil supplies.
On the flip side is Thandie Newton as then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who is a complete caricature, right down to the gap between her teeth. Surprisingly, Toby Jones doesn't get much to chew on considering that he plays longtime adviser Karl Rove - "Bush's Brain," as he's been called.
Elizabeth Banks brings the requisite ladylike sweetness to the role of Laura Bush, but she doesn't have a whole lot to do, either, besides provide steadfast support.
James Cromwell, however, is perfect as George H.W. Bush. He's not doing a dead-on impression, there are no Dana Carvey-style "thousand points of lights." He just seems to get the dignity, patience and elegance that define the man.
That's partly what makes the climactic dream sequence - a surreal showdown between Poppy and Dubya in the Oval Office - such a letdown. It comes out of nowhere. It seems uncharacteristic, when Stone had been playing it pretty straight all along. Not that it really matters.
"W." will change no one's mind. If you thought Bush was an idiot going into the movie, you'll continue to think so; if you were a fan of his, you'll think this is a hatchet job (then again, you probably won't be bothering to see it anyway).
In that regard, "W." has more in common with "Religulous," Bill Maher's dissection of organized religion, than it does with any previous Stone film . Both men are preaching to the choir - they're just doing it with signature entertaining style.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)