Hyde Park on Hudson

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/14/12 07:18:43

"That Was One Nutty Summit. . ."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Now that playing a real-life historical character has become an almost sure-fire method for scoring an easy Oscar nomination, it seems as if practically every actor or actress out there is stepping into the shoes of some notable figure in the hopes of carting home trophies and acclaim a-plenty. However, when it was announced that Bill Murray was going to appear in an upcoming film playing no less of an icon than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, many observers were incredulous at best when they heard the news. This was not necessarily meant as a slam on Murray, who has transformed from one of the most gifted comedic performers around to one of our finest actors of any type, but the notion of the resolutely laid-back star taking on such a part just sounded so odd in theory that it almost sounded like a spoof of the typical Oscar bait offerings that tend to dominate the multiplexes at this time of year. However, that sense of skepticism only lasts for the first few minutes of "Hyde Park on Hudson," soon to be replaced with a combination of confusion, annoyance and all-out boredom. Simply put, this movie is a near-total mess that will leave most viewers wondering what it was that the filmmakers were attempting to convey in the first place since whatever it was, they clearly missed the mark by an enormous margin.

Set during the summer of 1939, the film opens by introducing us to Margaret "Daisy" Suckley (Laura Linney), an unassuming woman of a certain age who just happens to be a sixth cousin of none other than F.D.R. himself. She doesn't know him that well and therefore, she is surprised to be summoned for a visit to the estate maintained by Roosevelt's mother (Elizabeth Wilson) in upstate New York that he uses to get away from it all. When she arrives, she is greeted with the image of a man cooping with the extraordinary pressures of being the leader of the United States, attempting to conceal the effects of the polio he is afflicted with from the world and dealing with the domineering influences of his mother, his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) and his ever-present secretary, Missy (Elizabeth Marvel). However, with Daisy around, Roosevelt is able to relax and let off some steam and the two become fast friends over a series of talks and long drives in the country. Their relationship soon goes to a new level, however, when Roosevelt waves off his bodyguards during one of those drives, heads off into a distant meadow and encourages Daisy to. . .well, I want to be as delicate as possible here and so I will simply say that this particular car trip has a happy ending for at least one of its participants.

Over the course of the summer, Daisy becomes a frequent visitor at the estate and the others have a pretty good idea as to what exactly she is there for, they are apparently willing to overlook the sordid details in order to keep him happy. If nothing else, there is also the sense that Daisy is not the first such person to relax him in this way and better it be someone who can be counted on for discretion than not. This all eventually leads to a pivotal weekend in which Roosevelt has invited none other than England's recently installed King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) to visit. For Roosevelt, the aim is simple--with England on the brink of war, he figures that by meeting with George, even unofficially, he can help boost his international opinion by making him seem like a true leader by putting him on the same level as himself and by humanizing him with such activities as an informal picnic. The weekend gets off on the wrong foot--the royals' bedroom is inadvertently decorated with an anti-British cartoon and they are aghast at the notion of consuming something called a "hot dog"--and tensions are exacerbated by Daisy's presence. Eventually, even she grows tired of the situation but when things are at their bleakest, she agrees to return and do what she clearly does best--take charge of a situation involving a world leader and a wiener, this one literal instead of metaphorical. (If you are wondering why none of this came up in your history class, it is because the film was inspired by letters and diaries kept by Daisy that were discovered after her death in 1990.)

As unpromising as all of this may seem in theory, "Hyde Park on Hudson" is infinitely worse in its execution. For starters, the screenplay by Richard Nelson is a real mess that tries to tell two different stories that don't really have much to do with each other and never figures out a way of how to blend them together--we are theoretically meant to be seeing this film through Daisy's eyes but she is barely around for most of the key moments in the second half. In his attempts to get some sort of hold on the material, director Roger Michell, the usually reliable filmmaker behind such charmers as "Persuasion," "Notting Hill" and the underrated "Morning Glory," veers between mild ribaldry, class-based drama along the lines of "Downton Abbey" and a depiction of the barely-concealed flaws of powerful people a la "The King's Speech" but never manages to find a consistent tone for the proceedings and the constant shifts are more jarring than anything else. The characters are thinly drawn and as a result, it is impossible to work up much interest in either them or what they hope to accomplish despite the stature and talent of the actors involved. (This may be the biggest nothing of a role that Linney has ever been stuck with and bear in mind, she was in "Congo.") There is also a serious lack of dramatic tension throughout, unless watching FDR attempt to nail a distant cousin while convincing the king of England to eat a frankfurter is your idea of narrative nirvana. This is not to say that these elements could not have somehow been combined into an interesting story--it merely means that the people involved with this film have utterly failed to do so.

And now, I fear I must go off on a brief rant--feel free to skip over the next paragraph entirely if you want. I understand that we as a country still, despite that whole Revolutionary War thing, have a perverse fascination with anything regarding to the British royal family right down to the quality and quantity of their stomach ailments. However, when did it be a requirement that the misadventures of King George VI had to be covered in at least one bit of Oscar bait each holiday season. Back in 2010, we had the monstrously overrated "The King's Speech," which chronicled how he was able to overcome his crippling stutter and inspire his country in their darkest hour while managing to make them overlook any possible ties he might have had with the Germans. Last year, we had Madonna's "W.E.," in which we see him assume the throne after his older brother abdicates in order to be with the divorced American socialite that he had been dallying with. Now we have this one to add to the pile. At this rate, I expect that right around this time next year, we will be seeing a wacky animated film following the misadventures of a spunky dreamer of a hot dog who dreams of being served at the royal picnic depicted here.

Frankly--again, no pun intended--the only thing about "Hyde Park on Hudson" that really works is the element that raised the most eyebrow in the first place and that would be the performance by Bill Murray. He may not conform to the image of FDR that we all have in our minds through newsreels and history lessons but on the other hand, the FDR he is playing is one that was out of the spotlight and therefore gives him a little more leeway in regards to playing the part as a normal person rather than as a historical icon. Unlike the film as a whole, he manages to cover the shifts between comedy and drama without making a mess of things and even manages to make FDR seem charming even at his least likable moments. He is also pretty much single-handedly responsible for the success of the film's best scene, a late-night private drink between him and George VI in which he compares their respective infirmities and advises how the people will willingly look beyond them once their trust has been earned. It may be a terrible movie but it is a very good performance under the circumstances and when it was all over, I would have given him a hand but based on the evidence supplied here, it seems as if I would have had to wait in line for a while.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.