February 13, 2013

Bill Murray Shines in Hyde Park on Hudson

Movie Pick

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON (R) There was always a frustrated dramatic actor struggling to get out of Bill Murray. In 1984, after his post-"Saturday Night Live" stint and during his heyday with audiences starring in Stripes and Ghostbusters, Murray co-wrote and starred in a screen adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge. It was a misguided, self-consciously "serious" affair, and the funnyman leapt back into overt comedic performances for several years. In the late 1990s, however, something strange happened: Murray started taking character roles in smaller movies like Wes Anderson's Rushmore and into the next decade in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation and Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers. The work was still ostensibly comedic, but these smaller movies allowed Murray the opportunity to deepen his performances with a world-weary physicality and line delivery. Though Murray doesn't disappear into character here like Daniel Day-Lewis or early Robert De Niro do at their best, he is nevertheless a revelation.  

You don't go to a movie like Hyde Park on Hudson for the direction, supplied here in workman-like fashion by Roger Michell (Notting Hill). You go to watch the actors and for the writing. Richard Nelson's screenplay is set at President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (Murray) country estate in New York in June 1939, just a few months before the outbreak of World War II. The United States has no plans to get involved in a war with Germany, but England is preparing to enter the fray and would like the Yanks to join in. The royal monarchs, stuttering King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman), visit FDR to convince him that standing up to Hitler's Nazi regime is the only choice. Meanwhile, the president's sixth cousin, Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), spends time with him and eventually becomes his mistress and confidant. 

Nelson's screenplay mainly focuses on Suckley and Roosevelt's intimate relationship, superbly handled by Linney and Murray, but it also examines how personalities in private subtly nudge political policy with charisma conjoined with intelligence, humor and much patience. Hyde Park on Hudson is not a work of great depth, but there is plenty of insight into human nature here, and all of the smaller performances (particularly West, Coleman and Olivia Williams as Eleanor Roosevelt) are excellent. Who knew that extraordinary people at an extraordinary moment in time eating hot dogs could have such importance for all of us?