Film Review: Bill Murray's New Deal in 'Hyde Park'

Nicola Dove
Bill Murray is an unusual choice to portray President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in "Hyde Park on Hudson."

Nicola Dove Bill Murray is an unusual choice to portray President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in "Hyde Park on Hudson."

‘Hyde Park on Hudson’

Rated R for brief sexual content.

In June 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, host the King and Queen of England for a weekend at the Roosevelt home ...

Rating: R for brief sexuality

Length: 94 minutes

Released: December 7, 2012 NY/LA

Cast: Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Williams, Olivia Colman, Samuel West

Director: Roger Michell

Writer: Richard Nelson

More info and showtimes »

"The Day the King Ate a Hot Dog" might be a more informative title for "Hyde Park on Hudson," a wispy historical trifle that reaches its dramatic, even mustardy climax at a supposedly momentous picnic.

Likable if silly, the film is notable for the novelty casting of Bill Murray as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Evoking rather than impersonating the four-term president who led America through the Great Depression and the Second World War, Murray presents FDR as a wily seducer whose show of fatherly affection and respect proves as irresistible to the insecure new king of England as the roguish twinkle in his eyes is to the ladies of his informal harem.

The movie may best entertain those with a weakness for period décor and antique automobiles: Almost the entire story takes place over a few days in June 1939 at FDR's country estate

in Hyde Park, New York. (The movie actually was shot in England.) The film also may please viewers who enjoy imagining historical figures as flawed but lovable characters in reassuringly cozy contexts, as in the far superior "The King's Speech.""Hyde Park on Hudson" shares a kinship with that 2010 Best Picture Oscar-winner. The most enjoyable moments in "Hyde Park" involve the stuttering King George VI (Samuel West) and his wife, Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), familiar from the earlier movie, in which they were played by Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter.

"Hyde Park" takes place about three months before the fateful radio address that concludes "The King's Speech," and was inspired by the royal couple's supposedly social meeting with FDR, which marked the first visit by a British monarch to the U.S.

The mission was serious (the king and queen hoped to gain American support for England's inevitable entry into the European war), but the movie works best as comedy. The skilled cast squeezes a great deal of pleasure out of the befuddled reactions of the royals to such distinctly American oddities as hot dogs, Indian tom-toms and the boisterous Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams).

There's not much more to it than that. In fact, the major drama of the piece seems to be whether the king will embrace the savoriness of hot dogs at a press-covered picnic the queen approaches with the eagerness of a gangrene victim scheduled for a leg removal. Fine and dandy, but, unfortunately, director Roger Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson make the confounding decision to frame "Hyde Park on Hudson" as the remembrance of voice-over narrator Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), FDR's "fifth or sixth cousin," whose affair with the president was discovered after her death in 1991, and who had no real role in the meeting between FDR and the king. (In fact, she is not even present at many of the events introduced on-screen by her narration.)

"Hyde Park" probably does Suckley an injustice: It presents her as not just mousy, but also dim and dull — a drag on the movie as well as the Roosevelt household. A bolder film might have been less forgiving of FDR's calculated and rather ruthless seduction of this apparently unsophisticated if hardly young woman; a more complicated movie might inspire viewers to wonder why sexual affairs involving "great" men that are reported long after the fact are greeted with tolerant, sympathetic smirks while those discovered in progress inspire denunciations, resignations and even impeachment trials.

"Hyde Park on Hudson" is at Malco's Ridgeway Four.

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