An extraordinarily nuanced performance by Denzel Washington isn’t enough to redeem Jonathan Demme’s dead-in-the-water remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 political satire The Manchurian Candidate. Demme and a pair of hack screenwriters, Daniel Pyne (perpetrator of the dreadful Pacific Heights) and Dean Georgaris (guilty of processing scripts for John Woo’s Paycheck and also a Lara Croft movie), approach this project with a jacked-up seriousness that isn’t serious at all: they jettison the comedy and the wit from scenarist George Axelrod’s conception and in doing so remove the tension and thrills as well.
The movie instantly establishes itself as aggressive trash. The soundtrack bursts with rock songs raucously spliced together as American GIs play poker in Kuwait, circa 1991. Demme wants us to know he’s up to date—that’s why he imposes this chorus of aural schlock and awe. It’s sad, because once upon a time Demme incorporated pop music into his films splendidly. In Something Wild and Married to the Mob, the music by turns might be dreamy, flirtatious, or humorous, and Demme sometimes placed songs so inventively—such as Sister Carol’s reggae cover of “Wild Thing”—that the tunes became miniature characters unto themselves. With The Manchurian Candidate, Demme admits he’s lost. It’s a shamefully inept movie, and even the climactic assassination sequence feels generic in both staging and scoring. Now if Demme had made this film back in the 1980s—oh, but then he was still an artist and had better things to do.
Washington, in the Frank Sinatra role, displays a hitherto unseen vulnerability as Major Marco. In 1962, the military authorities indulged and respected Sinatra’s Marco; they gave his nightmarish visions due consideration. In this version, Marco is another shabbily mistreated, discredited war veteran, ordered to take his meds and hush up. There’s a brief, powerful moment when Washington awakes on a park bench, and dolefully spins burnt-out half-confessions to a lady friend (the beautiful Kimberly Elise). Mostly, the filmmakers require Washington to walk through a series of science fiction freak show set pieces, weightless scenes that nonetheless have the heft of dreariness.
Making the title character (played here by Liev Schreiber, who manages to be even stiffer and more vacuous than Laurence Harvey in the original) a politician instead of a journalist must have seemed a sensible choice. It doesn’t work. The reason for that is because the film, despite using the backdrop of a presidential election, has no real political content. It’s toothless. I didn’t mind the careful omission of Democrat or Republican labels. Demme, Pyne, and Georgaris, however, haven’t replaced the 1962 film’s attack on McCarthyism with anything, unless their cannibalism of other people’s work counts, and I don’t think it does. In the older version, when the softhearted Senator Jordan was shot and killed, he bled milk. No such liquid spills in this film, yet Demme and the writers certainly have milk in their veins.
The director and his co-scenarists tell us that once-honored Persian Gulf vets have been thrown away, but that was more or less the case even before George W. Bush’s recent policies of scaling back veteran benefits and medical care. And the filmmakers aren’t doing veterans any favors by portraying the Al Melvin character as a loony tune who covers his bedroom wall with strange drawings that might have been leftover sketches from The Silence of the Lambs. In the earlier Manchurian Candidate, Al Melvin was fairly well adjusted aside from his nightmares. This movie’s Melvin (Jeffrey Wright) exists only to be a sort of voodoo figure—easy paranoia and a suicide in the Potomac. Exploitative rather than realistic, the role insults vets, Wright, and the rest of us.
In lieu of any cogent political argument to make, Demme coasts on churning out a mad scientist movie, and even at this, he and his accomplices fall flat. Khigh Dhiegh in 1962 made a memorably repugnant villain, a supercilious dandy encased in folds of flesh. Here, Simon McBurney, as a flavorless South African baddie, leaves hardly a trace.
It’s also a mistake to change the hero’s domineering mother (Meryl Streep) from a behind the scenes player to a U.S. Senator. Demme and company eliminate the Shaw family’s domestic scenes (except for one), the solitaire games, the Queen of Hearts, the slapstick kung-fu sequence, and most unfortunate of all, the Johnny Iselin character, brilliantly portrayed by comedian James Gregory in the first Manchurian.
As Eleanor Shaw, the overrated Streep is miscast. Early on, there’s a severely miscalculated scene—an apotheosis of bad acting, bad directing, and bad screenwriting—wherein Senator Shaw single-handedly convinces a roomful of kingmaker flunkies to anoint her son as a Vice-Presidential nominee. Streep, with tired eyes and joyless witchery, didn’t convince me. I couldn’t even believe that the others would buy her bill of goods, yet along with it they go. Streep rattles off empty dialogue in her trademark giggle, never more out of place, and her incompetence here gave me an entirely new appreciation for the genius of Angela Lansbury, who embodied this role to eerie perfection 42 years ago. About the only thing Streep does well is to convey a sense of Eleanor’s sublimated sexual desires for her son. She and Schreiber share a quasi-incestuous kiss that says something about control freak single moms and the hapless only child. But that revelation alone doesn’t justify this movie. – NPT
July 20, 2004