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Wag the Dog
1997 - R - 96 Mins.
Director: Barry Levinson
Producer: Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro and Barry Levinson
Written By: Hilary Henkin and David Mamet
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anne Heche, Denis Leary, Kirsten Dunst, Willie Nelson, Andrea Martin, Woody Harrelson, Craig T. Nelson
Review by: John Ulmer
   

Gotta stop at K-Mart. Definitely gotta get some underwear.
Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail were smarter than the dog, the tail would wag the dog. So say the opening credits of Barry Levinson's political satire "Wag the Dog," one of the best bites at American politics ever made. Levinson ("Diner," "Rain Man") has made some great films in his career. "Wag the Dog" is one of his most charismatic and energetic.

The film concerns itself with the media's close links with the government. In it, a veteran spin doctor hires a Hollywood mega-producer to help start a false war, in an effort to divert attention from the President's alleged underage affair with a "Firefly girl." The spin doctor is played by Robert De Niro. The bigshot Hollywood producer is Dustin Hoffman. Together, De Niro and Hoffman create one of the best teams in ages -- and Hoffman's performance in particular is scene-stealing

Conrad Brean (De Niro) is under pressure to resurrect the President's chances at being re-elected, so he and Stanley Motss (Hoffman) start using any means necessary to jump-start their phony war. Along with the help of an associate (Anne Heche) they travel around the country stirring up controversy about the war, creating false war heroes, alerting America of possible attacks by Albania (their false war target). In today's day and age, it almost seems uncannily close to reality.

The movie has extremely funny scenes, all very realistic in nature. People who appreciate films will love "Wag the Dog" because of its Hollywood references. "Did you know there's no Academy Award for producing?" Motss asks Brean. Throughout the movie he relates unexpected and overwhelming incidents to his past. "This is nothing compared to when one of my projects had its funding canceled after four months," Motss says. Everyone rolls their eyes. They've heard the story before.

Then there's the part where we meet up with the fake war hero that Brean has hired. He's played by Woody Harrelson and is a convict. "What did he do?" someone asks. "Murdered a nun," is the reply. Then we find out that the convict is running low on medication, which results in some very funny jokes.

I have to admit that I'm surprised some scenes were present in the finished cut, such as the indication that a President's staff is corrupt enough to actually do such things as those we see in "Wag the Dog." The film is bold enough to actually use scenes such as this to its advantage. What might come across as rude or possibly irreverent becomes quite hilarious. In a film crammed with celebrity cameos (ranging from Denis Leary to Craig T. Nelson), Willie Nelson shows up and is hired to write a patriotic war song. "Albania, Albania," he croons. "Yeah, that rhymes," Motss says.

Throughout the movie, Hoffman's performance is frantic and wild, resulting in a rather hyperactive character who is constantly talking, moving, yelling, or worrying. Although De Niro stole the show in "Analyze This," Hoffman does the same in "Wag the Dog," creating a very memorable character to add to his resume.

The movie was written by David Mamet and Hilary Henken. Mamet has an ear for great dialogue, always has, and undoubtedly most of the solid dialogue in "Wag the Dog" could be attributed to his credit as co-writer. Mamet also wrote the script for De Niro's "We're No Angels," which co-starred Sean Penn, and was a fairly enjoyable and underrated comedy about two convicts who escape from jail and try to cross the Canadian border, only to be mistaken for Catholic priests. It wasn't a great movie but due to Mamet, De Niro and Penn, it succeeded as light entertainment. What was missing was the solid dialogue present in Mamet's other scripts, and there's plenty of it in "Wag the Dog." There are a handful of quotes from this film that I will probably never forget.

Movies such as "Wag the Dog" don't come around very often, and when they do, they're usually a lot tamer. This is a film that I believe the majority of Americans will enjoy because they'll find themselves realizing how realistic, and yet also far-fetched, the jokes are. Personally, I also loved the little digs targeted at Hollywood. In a subtler way the film bites at Hollywood in the same way that "Get Shorty" and "Adaptation" did.

With Barry Levinson's career now being harmed by disasters such as "Envy," "Wag the Dog" is good proof that he still can direct a very solid comedy -- he just needs to learn to turn down certain scripts in favor of better ones.
 
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

 
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