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‘Hyde Park on Hudson’ Review

Hyde Park in Hudson review
Focus Features

Franklin Roosevelt needs a new publicist. While his Presidential colleague Abraham Lincoln is being exulted in multiplexes all over the country by no less than Steven Spielberg, he’s getting portrayed as a lazy, unfeeling womanizer in ‘Hyde Park on Hudson.’ If this film is to be believed, our 32nd President (played by Bill Murray) spent most of his time at work looking for a different sort of job, provided by an assortment of female associates who attended to his every need. And I mean every need.

These companions include Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), a sixth cousin of Roosevelt’s who apparently became intimately familiar with the, uh, Presidential Seal at the behest of his mother (Elizabeth Wilson). Suckley travels to the Roosevelts’ home in Hyde Park to keep the lonely President company during his busy schedule; his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) is distant even when she’s present. The two grow closer and eventually begin an affair that commences, in a lengthy scene that straddles the line between artsy and fartsy, in the front seat of FDR’s custom automobile. After that, the two are inseparable.

That’s how Suckley can bear witness to (and voiceover narrate) an important footnote in world history: an official visit by the British Royal Family to Hyde Park in 1939, when The King (Samuel West) and Queen (Olivia Colman) come to ask President Roosevelt for America’s support in its impending war with Germany. The course of human history may depend on the outcome of this weekend, but the President seems less interested in international diplomacy than in drinking, telling jokes, and seeing if he can force the King of England to eat a hot dog. That’s right; while this particular picnic lunch does carry a certain amount of symbolic weight, ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’ is ultimately about nothing more about one man trying to get another man to stick a wiener in his mouth.

And yes, between the President’s catering menu and his hands-on country drives, there is a lot of phallic imagery in this very strange prestige picture, which feels like it was genetically engineered in a lab to be the ultimate awards contender: not a whole lot happens, but man the production design is immaculate, the costumes are period perfect, and the sweeping cinematography of pastoral Upstate New York is glorious. Let’s not forget that you also have a big-time actor, Bill Murray, taking on the role of a big-time historical figure, FDR — a tactic typically worth some critical attention.

A few years ago, this role — with a thick accent, a fair amount of gravitas, and a pair of polio-wracked legs — would have seemed like a stretch for a comedian like Murray. But he’s played so many roles against type in recent years that now this is Murray’s type: the lonely middle-aged sad sack. At this point, Bill Murray being Bill Murray onscreen would be a legitimate (and welcome) surprise. Like just about everyone and everything else in ‘Hyde Park on Hudson,’ Murray is fine but completely forgettable.

Fine, forgettable, and often inexplicable — like the choice of Suckley as the narrator in a story she is barely a witness to, much less a participant in. Ultimately, the only character who goes through anything resembling an arc in ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’ is King George VI, but his life was already examined in far greater and more effective detail in 2010′s ‘The King’s Speech.’ As a result, everything about him here — from his stutter to his inferiority complex — feels like a rehash.

It can be interesting to learn about the private life — and buried flaws — of a great man, but ‘Hyde Park on Hudson”s FDR exhibits absolutely zero charisma and barely any intelligence. This man was elected to the highest office in our nation four times. Surely he must have had some positive qualities. If he did, they’re not really on display here. Besides the impressively detailed production, there’s not a lot of positive qualities on display in ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’ in general. ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’ opens in select theaters on December 7.

Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’

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