Oscar season is upon us, which means lots of prestigious biographies of powerful or famous people. After this weekend, there will be three such movies vying for your ticket-buying dollar: Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s surprising smash “Lincoln,” Anthony Hopkins as the master of suspense in “Hitchcock” and, starting on Friday, Bill Murray (of all people), playing Franklin D. Roosevelt in “Hyde Park on Hudson.” True to form, Roosevelt ain’t ‘fraid of no ghost.
“Hyde Park on Hudson” dramatizes the President’s activity right before the United States entered World War II, focusing largely on the time he spent at his country estate — which he called Hyde Park on Hudson — as well as the intimate relationship he forged with a distant cousin named Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney).
Should you be interested in this dewy historical recreation or are you better served by one of the other biographies currently playing? Read on to find out!
PRO: Bill Murray Is Presidentially Perfect
It’s always fun to see Bill Murray pop up in anything, but it’s a real treat when he takes center stage (which seems to be an increasingly rare occurrence these days). As FDR, Murray is both impish and austere, part of an old-fashioned tradition that still knew the value of a well-placed practical joke. As an actor, Murray has shown unprecedented (and underappreciated) range, and here that continues, playing a character who is, by and large, kind of a jerk, but one whose passion, strong will and humanity would guide us through a defining moment in history. His chemistry with the excellent Laura Linney is really wonderful as well. (There’s a moment when she asks him if he blames his mother for his polio that will break your heart.) Overall, Murray’s performance is so good that it (almost) makes you forget about the time Jon Voight played Roosevelt in Michael Bay’s star-spangled spectacle “Pearl Harbor.” Although it won’t entirely erase the memory of the moment when Voight-as-FDR rises from his wheelchair and says, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” Classic cinema.
CON: It’s Really Boring
There’s no way around it: “Hyde Park on Hudson” is the cinematic equivalent of sleepytime tea. It will put you right to bed. It’s hard to pinpoint why, exactly, because the story is fairly interesting, the cast is uniformly wonderful, and it was directed by Roger Michell, who isn’t exactly an ace filmmaker but has made a few gems (most notably the Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts rom com “Notting Hill” and the amazing, deeply underrated Ian McEwan adaptation “Enduring Love”). Unfortunately, this thing just lays there, sunning itself like a lizard on a rock. There isn’t a whole lot of conflict, even though it leads up to the start of World War II. And while it centers around a forbidden affair, things remain decidedly PG. However, if you want to see Bill Murray hot-rodding around in an old timey car, well, this is the movie for you!
PRO: It’s Like A Sequel To “King’s Speech” (Sort Of)
One of the elements of the movie that isn’t being publicized at all is the film’s third act, which primarily concerns a visit to Hyde Park on Hudson from King George VI (played by Samuel West) and Queen Consort Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), in an attempt to drum up interest in the United States helping out in World War II. (It’s odd to think of a time when pacifism was an actual, viable option.) Keep in mind that this was the first time a British monarch had ever visited the U.S. (yes, seriously). Also, this is the same king that was dramatized in the Academy Award-winning “King’s Speech.” Although West isn’t exactly Colin Firth, he is charming and convincing in his own right. If you compare it side-by-side with “King’s Speech,” this film offers a compelling alternate take on the same period of the royal’s life. The stuff with the King and Queen is also the most robust and entertaining section of the movie, containing actual jokes instead of parlor room giggles, and a lovely fish-out-of-water vibe.
PRO: It’s Pretty Short
Particularly at this time of the year, when every movie wants to assure its stately importance by flirting with the three-hour mark, “Hyde Park on Hudson’s” brisk 95-minute running time seems like a gift from up high. It’s even shorter than Brad Pitt’s brilliant, blood-soaked “Killing Them Softly,” although “Hyde Park on Hudson” features no brutal beatings or excessive use of the F-word. (Sorry.)
CON: Even Still, It’s Got More Narration Than “Casino”
For some reason, “Hyde Park on Hudson” is burdened by an excessive amount of narration. Recited gamely by Linney, the voiceover is fairly standard. It’s unclear whether Michell lacked confidence in his own storytelling abilities and felt the need to have Linney explain every damn historical or emotional beat, or if this was a part of the script from the very beginning. But whoever’s fault it is, it’s an absolute deathly decision. I mean, it’s amazing FDR loves the peace and quiet of Hyde Park on Hudson considering the amount of overhead chattering going on in this film.