At 61 years of age, the presumably hard-living Bill Murray conservatively only has two more decades of work left in him. So perhaps we all want him to really dazzle us with some meaty roles and not waste his time with middling fluff like Roger Michell‘s “Hyde Park on Hudson,” a moderately pleasant but depthless picture that makes “The King’s Speech” look like “A Clockwork Orange.” OK, that’s a purposeful exaggeration, but “Hyde Park on Hudson” is unremarkable; the type of would-be Oscar frivolity that makes sure it goes down the award season check list for every gentle and inoffensive cinematic element it can find.
Featuring a gentle score in the key of “delightful” — the cloying sentiment that largely defines the film — a voice-over, oh-so-comical cultural misunderstandings, and serviceable performances, Michell’s picture, much like last year’s similarly weightless “My Week with Marilyn,” is perhaps only a few grades higher than an above-average Lifetime movie. It’s amiable, safe, conventional, and yes, to many audiences at Telluride, tremendously crowd-pleasing, but that doesn’t preclude the fact that it’s thoroughly milquetoast.
Set in 1939 on the eve of WWII, President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Murray) is popular, in power, and is seemingly living in the midst of a relatively easy political term (if there’s political unease at this time, ‘Hudson Park’ is largely uninterested in chronicling it). In fact, life seems so carefree that Roosevelt rarely spends time in Washington and has retreated to the easygoing rural American countryside of the titular Hyde Park on Hudson in upstate New York.
There, the polio-stricken 32nd President drinks martinis, suffers from allergies and makes the occasional speech to the American people about the ailing economy. Hyde Park is actually Roosevelt’s mother’s and one could argue she’s pulling the strings of the day-to-day activities. The (we’re to believe) semi-butch Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams) is rarely seen and she’s evidently preoccupied with other manners (her lesbianism is alluded to in masculine adjectives about her character, but that’s it).
But this story is actually not hers. A two-fold narrative (and almost two films at odds with one another), “Hyde Park On Hudson” centers on Roosevelt’s secret lover Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (a fifth cousin, well-played by Laura Linney, the most engaging actress in the movie) and acts almost as part two to “The King’s Speech.” With Nazi Germany about to beat down England’s door, the relatively new King and Queen of England (Samuel West as George VI and Olivia Coleman as Elizabeth) make the first-ever visit of a reigning English monarch to the United States in a desperate bid to enlist them as an ally against the forthcoming axis. Unfortunately, on top of its already conventional tone, one story counteracts the other and neither are fully realized.
And so Michell’s picture, co-written by playwright Richard Nelson (“Ethan Frome“), generally gives equal weight to both stories. The affair being the more dramatic one with deeper emotional stakes and the impending U.K. visitation acting as more of a jovial and light comical farce. But the picture is ostensibly Linney’s story, as Daisy’s voiceover anchors the film in the beginning, middle and end.
Kicking off with a Scientology-like audition, Daisy is fetched by the President to ease his time in Hyde Park on Hudson. Evidently, she’s the cousin that was actually available to entertain the President. Timid and afraid, the President pulls out his precious stamp collection and eventually pulls her out of her shell with a little mild, gentle flirting. Soon, the two are going for quaint, countryside drives and something more romantic blossoms, culminating in a rather hilarious hand-job sequence (omg!). But as Daisy and Mr. President’s relationship blooms, the cousin, a conspicuous favorite of the POTUS — mistaken by some as a governess due to her ubiquity in the house — soon discovers that she’s one of many in Roosevelt’s little harem.
Meanwhile, with Daisy feeling angry and jilted, no longer being the special one, the King and Queen are arriving: cue cute, meant-to-be-oh-so-hilarious lost in cultural translation gags. Nervous and uneasy about their fish out of water status, not to mention what’s at stake — trying to convince the U.S. to help out in the war effort — the inexperienced and stuttering King and his severely uptight Queen roll into Hyde Park with their knees knocking.
Convinced the Americans are mocking them at every turn, the Queen tries to muster mettle and confidence out of his majesty. Less suspicious than his wife, the naive but well-meaning George tries to give his American counterparts the benefit of the doubt. So then, what largely ensues are lots of mildly humorous misunderstandings and side dramas when Daisy’s umbrage threatens to ruin the pleasantries. But a few heart to heart drinks between world leaders and a hot dog-eating photo-op later — a sign that Americans take as the English not being stuck up pricks — and the American/British special relationship is born. Meanwhile, members of Franklin’s coterie convince Daisy that his sleeping around is just the way it is and she should not rock the boat. Outraged and upset, Daisy eventually acquiesces to the President’s endless charms and goes with the flow that his inner-circle keep encouraging.
While Linney puts in a good performance and Murray delivers a subtle and mannered turn as Roosevelt, the would-be Oscar talk for this picture should evaporate quicker than you can say “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (though the hacks at the Golden Globes will eat it up). The picture should be far too lightweight to be taken too seriously as Academy fodder and if “The King’s Speech” argument is brought up, well, at least that picture was comparatively funnier and more engaging. Then again, Bill Murray isn’t getting any younger and this could be his consolation prize nomination for all of those years he was mostly ignored (he has one Oscar nomination to date).
Had the picture focused on the Daisy/Franklin relationship with more thought, perhaps ‘Hyde Park’ would bear more weight. But Michell is clearly more interested in entertaining and pleasing his audience, creating a middle-of-the road dramedy that possesses a few somber notes and the occasional comic tickle, but nothing tremendously effective in either aim.
Known for directing MOR pictures like “Notting Hill” and “Morning Glory,” Michell’s “Hyde Park on Hudson” is largely harmless and tame, but also shallow and uninvolving. A bonafide feel-good crowd-pleaser, “Hyde Park on Hudson” should strike a chord with lenient and undiscerning audiences, but with little substance or heft, the picture is a mildly pleasurable but a forgettable and toothless look at a little corner where history, politics and romance met. [C]