Primary Colors (1998)

Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who last collaborated on THE BIRDCAGE, 
adapt the Anonymous bestseller (actually Newsweek columnist Joe 
Klein) and the results are compelling, but far from captivating.  
John Travolta plays the Clintonesque character Jack Stanton, a 
(relatively) young Southern governor who speaks softly but carries 
a big drumstick.  He's a good ol' boy, who likes to sing songs, 
spin yarns, and spend his late evenings in the comfort of a Krispy 
Kreme.  His most endearing trait, an honest desire to bring better 
change, is offset by his most problematic:  an overindulged libido.  
Mrs. Stanton (Emma Thompson, looking better than Hillary ever has) 
turns a blind eye, but their strategists (Adrian Lester, Billy Bob 
Thornton, and Kathy Bates) know better.  If he's gonna win the Dem-
ocratic Primary, they'd better dig up any dirt before his opponents 
do.  And so unfolds a lively-enough tale of spin doctoring, with at 
least one Important Issue for the characters (and, thus, us) to 
chew over:  what are we willing to accept in a leader, to get what 
we really want?

Though a potent piece, with it's big cast and funny lines and oc-
casionally great speeches, PRIMARY COLORS is by no means a gripping 
tale.  Part of the problem, I think, is in Travolta's performance.  
He opts for an impersonation, right down to the frosted eyebrows 
swiped from a Saturday Night Live skit.  It's amusing, in a way, 
but it's also distracting.  And though most of the movie's real-
world parallels *are* intended, Travolta's take on the character is 
arguably too much-- too much reality for a fictional film that's 
already a challenge to sit back and simply enjoy.  (It's a toughie 
not to pay too much attention to the similarities, especially in 
Lew of current events.)  

Another problem is that Travolta's character isn't even at the cen-
ter of the story.  Those honors belong to Adrian Lester's budding 
but brilliant political strategist.  (Think a black George Stephan-
opoulos.)  He's a boring bloke-- not terminally so, but still unin-
teresting enough to inspire seat-squirming.  Maybe if his character 
were played by a more charismatic actor.  Or, on the other side of 
fence, maybe if the other characters were fleshed out a bit more.  
Sure, Billy Bob and Ms. Bates hold our attention just fine--  they 
have the scene-stealing roles, modeled on James Carville and Mandy 
Grunwald-- but neither Thompson nor Travolta ever give us enough.  
Only at the end, really, do we get a greater glimpse of what's un-
derneath.  (In one of the last and best scenes, they both display a 
surprising ruthlessness.)  All said and done, PRIMARY COLORS is a 
relentlessly watchable film.  Big cast, relevant story, good photo-
graphy, etc.  Only the odd bit is immediately confounding, such as 
an out-of-the-blue shot of Lester's character in bed with another.  
Huh?  With Larry Hagman, Maura Tierney, and Paul Guilfoyle.  (Rated 
"R"/143 min.)

Grade: B

Copyright 1998 Michael J. Legeros
Movie Hell is a trademark of Michael J. Legeros

Originally posted to triangle.movies in MOVIE HELL: March 22, 1998

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