Sometimes the obvious isn’t, well, all that obvious. Not to everyone, I mean. Take the case of Charlie Wilson’s War. I’d have thought it perfectly obvious that the movie is a comedy. Its title character, after all, is a colorful Texan who boozes in hot tubs with strippers and Playboy pin-ups. I mean, what more do director Mike Nichols (Primary Colors) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) need to do to make their point? Trot out a fat guy who, in a fit of zany fury, smashes the windows of his boss’ office? Because their movie has that, too.
And yet Stephanie Zacharek of Salon.com and Peter Travers of Rolling Stone don’t quite seem to be in on the joke. Neither does David Edelstein of New York magazine, who labels the film a “history lesson” told in a “lickety-split style.” Well, at least he’s right about it moving quickly.
The film, which opened Dec. 21, tells the true story of Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a libertine congressman who, back in the 1980s, helped to end the Cold War by quietly arming the Afghans so that they could defeat their Soviet invaders. Backing him up were Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), that zany window smasher (and CIA operative), and Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a born-again millionaire.
To be fair, a lot of critics do understand that the film is a comedy and, in fact, add that it’s a hoot, which is equally obvious. But what sort of comedy?
David Ansen of Newsweek thinks it’s a “screwball comedy” while Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman calls it a “journalistic satire” and Robert Wilonsky of The Village Voice sees it as both a “boozy comedy” and a “dark comedy.” To me, it’s as close as a modern film is likely to come to capturing the madcap spirit of the Marx Brothers.
With his sidelong leer, gin-fueled lope and take-charge personality, Charlie is like Groucho’s Lone Star cousin. Gust, meanwhile, has the intensity and gift for wordplay of a Greek-American Chico (although sometimes Gust, who sports an assertive mustache, seems like another Groucho). Joanne, a socialite, is a little like Margaret Dumont, the Marxes’ high-society foil, except that she’s got something like Harpo’s wild hair and wilder spirit. (Ned Beatty, as a high-minded square, is the film’s real Dumont.) If you’re keeping score, Charlie Wilson’s War, in terms of plot and themes, comes down somewhere between the war-set, government-skewering Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera, in which the brothers join forces to serve a higher cause.
Getting back to that whole “obvious” business, the one thing about this movie that is obvious to just about all the reviewers is that Philip Seymour Hoffman steals the show. After his many terrific performances, including his recent turn in the superb Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Hoffman is America’s most quintessentially modern movie star.
What makes him so contemporary is that, no matter who he happens to be playing, he seems to have given up on himself or on the world but usually not on both. Hoffman’s blend of resignation and determination is what Edelstein correctly calls his “don’t-give-a-shit drive.” Like the brothers Marx, he’s heroically, and hilariously, unglued.
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