HYDE PARK ON HUDSON
Even Presidents Have Mostly Private Lives...
Perhaps this will be seen as partisan, but why is it that Democratic Presidents are the ones who are always schtupping to where they appear dangerously close to being sex addicts? JFK is enough to make any political party blush, but then you had Bill Clinton and his rendezvous with a girl old enough to be his daughter. Yes, you have Dwight Eisenhower's long-term association with his driver Kay Summersby (which have never been fully confirmed as an actual sexual relationship), but with that exception, are all horny free-world leaders represented by figurative jackasses?
Now enters Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson, where given the sheer number of women (sorry, but altogether they wouldn't qualify as a 'bevy of beauties') surrounding the 32nd President, is was a wonder he had time for running the country, let alone jump (or in his case, roll) in and out of beds left and right. Hyde Park on Hudson simply doesn't know what it wants to be: comedy, bedroom farce, historic film. Whatever good there was or could have been is thrown aside in a disorganized and rambling picture.
Daisy Stuckley (Laura Linney) lives in upstate New York, and while from old New York aristocracy of Dutch descent she, like most of America, is struggling through the Great Depression. That is, until her distant cousin asks that she come to keep him company. That cousin just happens to be the President of the United States, one Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray). As the plain Daisy in this setting, she is quickly overwhelmed and enchanted by her outgoing, gregarious cousin. After spending some time together (along with an executive order for a handjob), Daisy soon becomes one of Franklin's Girls, which curiously doesn't include the First Lady, Eleanor (Olivia Williams) but does include his longtime secretary Missy LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel)...and I wonder if the surname had a double meaning.
In any case, Hyde Park, ruled with an iron fist by First Mother Sara (Elizabeth Wilson) is to have a very special couple visiting: none other than Their Majesties King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) of the British Empire. This isn't just a social call. This is a publicity blitz (no pun intended) for the monarchs to build up goodwill for a stronger British-American alliance, to form shall we say, a 'special relationship' between GB & US.
In that fateful weekend, Their Majesties encounter American informality (and hot dogs), Daisy encounters Franklin's literal cottage industry of girls (I guess more hot dogs in a way) and we end with a picnic (where His Majesty eats hot dogs).
This is the kind of story one could make a whole book out of.
In fact, they HAVE made a book out of it, and The Roosevelts and the Royals makes a great read. Here we see the intense pressure both couples were under as the worldwide situation began spinning out of control with a rising Nazi Germany threat and pacifists/sympathizers on both sides of the Pond (including the King's former brother and predecessor, the Duke of Windsor). This visit of the monarchs to the United States was a delicate dance where the social graces hid machinations that if revealed would have brought great crisis to those involved. It also was the beginning of a genuine friendship between the four: FDR's paternal attitude towards George VI, and the Widows Roosevelt and Windsor understanding the pressures of the spouse.
It's unfortunate that Hyde Park on Hudson decided to skip all that and instead concentrate on poor Daisy. Poor boring Daisy. Poor boring Daisy through whom we're suppose to see the whole story, but who looks terribly lost amid all the splendor and mayhem of this most lost weekend. Richard Nelson, adapting his own radio drama, failed to understand what might work in purely audio form won't necessarily translate to the screen. Chief among the problems is the character of Daisy.
Now I love Laura Linney as much as the next right-thinking guy, as she is an actress who is one of the undervalued, underused, and underappreciated working today. However, despite her very best efforts Linney cannot make us care about Daisy because Daisy is such a remarkably passive and uninteresting character. Her voice-overs don't help (how I hate voice-overs).
A sign of how Hyde Park on Hudson wastes opportunities after opportunities is when the President of the United States places her hand on his thigh, near his crotch, and suggests non-verbally that she masturbate him. Once she does as her Commander-in-Chief asks, he almost timidly apologizes and in voice-over we hear her say, "And that was when I knew we were going to be good friends."
What, is she loca in the cabeza? Giving someone a handjob is not the hallmark of a long-lasting friendship (at least not for me). Is she just bonkers, or merely stupid? Again and again we have to hear Daisy tell us what she thought, what she says, foreshadowing (then...when suddenly...). This appears to come from radio, but it just seems that here, there is no trust of the audience to figure out what is going on.
Going further into the characters, it is nearly impossible to escape the shadow of The King's Speech when watching Hyde Park on Hudson, and that being the case it seems like George VI and Elizabeth are coming from different planets entirely. In Hyde Park on Hudson, we have a snobbish, short-tempered Queen who belittles her husband and is constantly comparing him to his brother. This simply doesn't jive with not only The King's Speech, but with history itself (where there was anything to suggest that Her Majesty was not only passionately supportive of Bertie but who made him the King he became).
Sometimes West and Colman appeared to be directing themselves, looking desperate for guidance in how to interpret their characters. Roger Michell couldn't or wouldn't do anything to help them or help structure the story to be either about the royal visit or the President's peccadilloes.
Instead, he appeared to be focusing all his attention on Murray's FDR. Murray is a great talent even if he bears little resemblance to the President, and to his credit gives off that self-confidence FDR had. He even manages some good scenes, such as when the President and the Monarch are discussing privately the true affairs of state, including their own limitations.
Unfortunately, at times the action of Hyde Park on Hudson merely revolved around Roosevelt rather than have him at the center of the story. By doing so much wrong (portraying the King and Queen as snobbish, snippish, bumbling idiots, focusing on Daisy, looking more into FDR's dalliances rather than his political genius) Hyde Park on Hudson short-changed this often-overlooked moment in history and turn it into one sad joke. This film is less a comedy of errors than a comedy of horrors.
One last thing: as much as has been made about the King-Emperor chomping down on a hot dog, there are no actual photographs of this majesty meets modernity. In this case, as with Hyde Park on Hudson, a little subtlety goes a long way.