Tuesday, April 9, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: Lushly shot "Hyde Park on Hudson" favors kissing cousins and hot dogs over FDR biopic


Hyde Park on Hudson (2012) 
94 min., rated R.

In 2012's Oscar race, "Hyde Park on Hudson" seemed to get lost in the shuffle, most surprisingly an acting nod to Bill Murray. The great comedic actor playing President Franklin Delanor Roosevelt would seem like a joke, but as it turns out, Murray is the one shining light that almost makes "Hyde Park on Hudson" worth a look. Almost. What seems to have the makings of a biopic about our 32nd president didn't end up that way. Director Roger Michell (1999's "Notting Hill," 2010's "Morning Glory"), who works from Richard Nelson's screenplay based on the central female's diaries, can never decide if this curious period piece is a cozy, genteel snapshot in history or a lightly crude lark. So when it tries to be both, it's all rather clunky and slight.

In 1939, the mousy, buttoned-up Margaret "Daisy" Suckley (Laura Linney) receives a phone call from President FDR's mother (Elizabeth Wilson) to come to their country vacation home in upstate Hyde Park, New York. Fifth cousins to the polio-stricken Franklin (Bill Murray), Daisy is asked to get his mind off of political pressures as the country is about to erupt into World War II. FDR sure likes his martinis, cigarettes, stamp collection, and women, but that becomes a problem for the one-man Daisy when she and FDR have already begun a secret affair.

Where does "Hyde Park on Hudson" start to go wrong? Well, only ten minutes in, FDR and Daisy take a drive in his roadster. He waves off his police escort and parks in a picturesque meadow. Cue "Moonlight Serenade" on the radio, Daisy handling his "other" stick shift, and the vehicle a-rockin'. "I knew that we were now not just fifth cousins but very good friends," Daisy comments in voice-over. Wait, what? It's a jarringly skeevy, unseemly moment that stops the film dead in its tracks. Given the fact that Daisy is our narrator, she is also the least interesting character, a dishwater-dull spinster who feels crushed when discovering she's just another notch in her distant cousin's bedpost. That's no fault of Linney's, her gravitas going completely to waste here in such a blank role. Olivia Williams, wearing a dental device, and Elizabeth Marvel are more compelling but still underutilized as Eleanor Roosevelt (whose love for the ladies and separate living arrangements from her husband being briefly mentioned) and Missy, the president's minxy secretary.

Thank goodness then for the stuttering King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), who arrive in town to implore America's help for England right before WWII. Last portrayed in "The King's Speech," Bertie and Liz bring about a comedy of manners, and West and Colman are quite amusing as the stiff-upper-lipped royalty. Though Daisy is initially introduced as the protagonist for the first quarter, it's actually a relief when the kissing cousins' behind-closed-doors relationship gets sidelined since it bears so little emotional weight. Murray and West have a nice one-on-one moment together in FDR's office, where the king feels better about his speech impediment from the president being self-deprecating about his own immobility. Then the focus gravitates towards a picnic and the royal couple eating hot dogs. When Daisy is asked to apply condiments to the king's frankfurter, is it really about England and America forming an alliance or just a phallic symbol?

Credit Murray for making a disarming FDR and not just doing an impersonation. Considering the actor doesn't pass as a dead ringer, he turns in a convincing performance, etching the historical figure as a flawed man of temptation. Also, the film literally shines with Lol Crawley's lush cinematography lending a summery, idyllic look, and the '30s period is perfectly captured through eye-filling production design and a few bluesy tunes by The Ink Spots. Nevertheless, "Hyde Park on Hudson" is a misconceived disappointment, the sort of lukewarm piffle a person could watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon while spring cleaning with the windows open. That is, if you can look past the handjob on Hudson.

Grade:

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