Maybe it works as the name of a hip hotel, but "W." isn't a great title for a movie. Especially when it's misspelled. Oliver Stone's new political biopic is called "W.," but it's pronounced Dubya, the way New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd spells it, the way the good ol' boys in Texas say it.
W is, of course, the middle initial of the current president of the United States. It's what some people actually call him. He doesn't mind.
"Anything but Junior," he tells his future wife, Laura, when he meets her at a Texas barbecue. "Junior" is a constant reminder of who's his daddy. According to Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser, "Junior" is code for being the Rodney Dangerfield of the Bush dynasty, the one who can't get any respect.
According to "W.," the scary state of our world at the moment owes a lot to the younger Bush's constant failure to measure up in the eyes of his his patrician "poppy." Reducing everything to an Oedipal conflict - of earth-shaking proportions - is the foundation of Oscar winner Stone's new film, which purports to be a comedy, but isn't much of one.
It's hard to say what "W." is - not totally factual, but you can only wish it were more fictional. Director Stone, who's always fearless but not always right when it comes to rewriting history, doesn't arrive at expected conclusions this time, no matter which side of the political spectrum you're coming from.
It's tragicomedy - you don't know whether to laugh or cry, but wish you could do neither and the whole thing would just go away.
That's how movie audiences feel, too. "W." couldn't even beat the chihuahua at the box office last weekend.
With Josh Brolin doing an Oscar-worthy star turn, "W." turns the Peter Principle into a cosmic joke. It's a tale of the black sheep of a rich, powerful American political clan who essentially couldn't hold a job, yet wound up with the most important job in the world.
As much as liberal-leaning Stone may have set out to vilify his subject, he instead discovers his folksy charm. With James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn as his overbearing parents, Brolin channels Dubya's discovery - once he gave up drinking and found religion - that in the game of politics, charisma is the trump card. Submerging his Yale and Harvard education under Texas swagger, he took the world stage as cowboy in chief.
But after his early brilliant choice picking a wife, (nicely played by Elizabeth Banks), he didn't do nearly as well picking his advisers. If John Kennedy's administration was "The Best and the Brightest," "W.'s" brain trust is just the opposite: a perfect storm of incompetence, egos, backbiting and buck-passing.
In this Machiavellian snake pit, it's hard to identify who's scariest - Richard Dreyfuss' sneering, bullying Dick Cheney; Scott Glenn's defense secretary from another planet, Donald Rumsfeld; Bruce McGill's self-important CIA chief George Tenet; or Toby Jones' Karl Rove, like a Satanic gnome riding on W.'s shoulder, whispering in his ear.
Right in there with the boys is Thandie Newton's annoying Condoleezza Rice, driven to tell her boss whatever she thinks he wants to hear, stabbing whatever back gets in her way delivering the message.
Although the movie never penetrates the enigma of George W. Bush, it does assert that the president really was the victim of bad intelligence and an ill-conceived strategy when it came to invading Iraq. Jeffrey Wright's Colin Powell was the lone voice of reason and integrity at the table.
After seeing him ground down by the others into the mouthpiece for the flawed policy, it's hard not to interpret the real Colin Powell's endorsement Sunday of Barack Obama for president as an act of contrition.
But in a presidential race that keeps feeling more like TV's latest reality show, the reel and real Colin Powells had to take second billing last weekend to the two Sarah Palins. Monday morning's political pundits turned into TV critics for the appearance of Alaska's governor on "Saturday Night Live," where Tina Fey has been impersonating her for weeks.
The consensus was that the self-described "Caribou Barbie" was definitely qualified to be on "Saturday Night Live." Although "SNL" veteran Chevy Chase said she couldn't improvise her way out of a paper bag, most thought she was a good sport and her babe quotient was through the roof.
The show, ironically enough, was hosted by Josh Brolin. After morphing his face into W.'s on camera, he acknowledged that after playing the part, he didn't think either one of them should be president.
Amidst such lingering questions of who's qualified to be what, it feels like the real legacy of the last eight years has less to do with "W.'s" intelligence than with his effect on everybody else's.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.