Like the pseudonymously Anonymous novel by Joe Klein on which it's based, Primary Colors is hard to judge as a film, parasitic as it is on what we know, or think we know, about Bill Clinton and his entourage. Even John Travolta's hilarious Billsbury-dough-boy performance as presidential candidate Jack Stanton doesn't help the film achieve independent standing; most of it flits by like an extended TV skit with good production values. Klein's novel failed in its last act by concocting a spurious moral test with which to judge its characters. His puppets, alas, weren't up to it. Paradoxically, it is just in this invented last act that Primary Colors the movie finally becomes interesting. Travolta and his fellow actors actually have something to do: bold speeches to declaim and realpolitik to argue. Travolta's final face-off with viewpoint character Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) is as gripping as the presidential handshake that is the film's organizing metaphor.
Dramatically gripping, anyway; like the rest of the film, the political world it depicts, and candidate Stanton himself, real truth is slippery and evasive. As such, Primary Colors is perfect material for director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Elaine May. Nichols and May were cabaret stars 35 years ago; Nichols' directorial career in the years since has relied on putting glib, audience-flattering spins on the obvious -- making the old seem new, and the new unthreatening. Hence his films of The Graduate, Catch-22, and most recently the May-scripted The Birdcage -- drag queens for suburbia. Back in 1952 critic Manny Farber defined the hoary devices Nichols relies so heavily on as "Gimp-string pulling," after a Victorian-era gimmick ladies could use to raise their skirts, all the while never revealing anything more than their shoes. "Whenever the modern film-maker feels that his movie has taken too conventional a direction and is neglecting 'art,' " wrote Farber, "he need only jerk the Gimp-string, and -- behold! -- curious and exotic but 'psychic' images are flashed before the audience, pepping things up at the crucial moment." Farber cited "the neon factory sign standing in for wealth and achievement" and the DA's lame leg in A Place in the Sun and "the Polack slobbering" of A Streetcar Named Desire as examples of the instant classics that seemed dead and airless to him in 1952. (He was right.) In Nichols' oeuvre we can find many such audience nudges -- shock-cuts to a monkey in The Graduate, the lone skater in Carnal Knowledge, the bathos of The Birdcage. His new film as well is full of this sort of vacant, stop-the-movie symbolism, as we learn Solemn Truths about politics and politicians. It's not surprising that these revelations never chip much below the level of cliche: Politicians lie (the all-enveloping handshake), they'll do anything to win elections (50 reaction shots of Burton rubbing stardust from his eyes), certain men have large appetites (cue Travolta to grab a chicken leg).
The most grating "Gimp-string" moment in this movie is a slow, arty track into a gorgeously lit Krispy Kreme doughnut shop where candidate Travolta connects with the underclass by eating their pastries. The scene itself is fine; it's the pretentious buildup to it that's annoying. ("Low-key photography, shallow perspectives, screwy pantomime, ominously timed action, hollow-sounding voices" -- Farber, 1952. It's all here in 1998.) The doughnut shop itself is of course red-white-and-blue (pull string). Hambone Travolta is in his element here, scarfing down the apple fritters and waxing empathetically. Like any other pampered movie star crusading for whales, Tibet, or Scientology, Travolta's undoubted sincerity in his public appearances is uncompromised by the slightest awareness of his own narcissism. The same look-at-me drive that makes Travolta, Beatty, Gere, or Alec Baldwin movie stars always undercuts their political activism, while making them great casting as politicians. The real L.A.-D.C. connection is not money or, God knows, influence, it's vanity and exhibitionism -- which is why this film's best performances are by such scenery-hogging sorts as Travolta, Kathy Bates, and Larry Hagman. Actors from non-Hollywood backgrounds, conversely, falter in this milieu: Billy Bob Thornton underplays his ersatz-James Carville, failing to register the intended quicksilver shifts from boor to genius tactician. Brit import Emma Thompson seems like an angry nanny in a bad haircut as faux Hillary.
Brit import Adrian Lester is also pretty wan as Henry Burton, the Dorothy character in this political Oz. Making his Stephanopoulos the grandson of a Martin Luther King-like civil rights pioneer was Klein's one non-"Guess who?" move in the original book. Nichols and May don't seem to know how to successfully integrate the character's privileged status and naivete with his African-Americanness; as a result, a potentially interesting theme (Burton's strangled relationships with the several black characters he encounters in his odyssey of disillusionment) is swallowed up in murky plot points. As for the film's depiction of pseudo-Bill Clinton's character -- the movie's chief selling point in our present cultural moment of obsession with the president's real and imagined flaws -- I didn't learn a thing about Clinton from Jack Stanton. I don't think the real Bill would have acted the way "our Jackie" does in this movie; Stanton seems dumber, fatter, homelier than the real Clinton, less-than-Bill in every regard both good and bad. After seeing Primary Colors I wanted to read the novel again to flesh out the film's many unmotivated and unexplained characters and actions. Then I realized -- the movie is actually better than the book, as the actors by the very act of being cast and filmed have fleshed out Klein's stick figures to the greatest degree possible. The movie is better than the book; only a Dostoevski or a Theodore Dreiser could do justice to the walking American tragedy riding a streetcar named desire in search of his place in the sun that is the real Bill Clinton.