I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a movie as spectacularly tone-deaf as “Hyde Park on Hudson.” A work of historical embroidery about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s bit on the side — make that plural — it comes to us at a time when we’re used to our national icons covered with fresh bird-droppings. JFK was a serial womanizer, Thomas Jefferson was an adulterous racist, James K. Polk beat his horses (OK, I made that up). Knowing what we know of men in positions of power, the news that FDR probably had affairs with a number of women, including a possible longstanding romance with his sixth cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, is dispiriting but not surprising. Actually, a portrait that would fully humanize the 32d president, balancing his strengths and weaknesses with a clear eye to both national and personal responsibilities, would not be an unwelcome event.
Instead, director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”), working from Richard Nelson’s screenplay, gives us a creepy sexual predator who’s also America’s benevolent big daddy, and the contradictions make your flesh crawl. There’s an early scene in which Roosevelt (Bill Murray) gets pleasured by Daisy (Laura Linney) while parked in a field in upstate New York, the car bouncing drolly on its springs. Later we learn he was the comforting father figure the insecure King George VI of England (Samuel West) desperately needed. Still later, we discover the president is also bedding his secretary (Elizabeth Marvel), after which we watch him humiliate Daisy in a bizarre interlude involving a hot dog at a Hyde Park picnic. All the while Jeremy Sams’s soundtrack music — easily the most cheerfully dunderheaded score of the year — blares away in an effort to paper over the film’s raging cognitive dissonance.
“Lincoln” it ain’t.
Perhaps now would be the time to note that none of this is Bill Murray’s fault. What appears to be stunt-casting — and maybe the reason many people will see the movie at all, curious to watch a cat bark like a dog — works out unexpectedly well. The comedian’s air of cosmic absurdity, that disengaged Zen delight in all things, serves the character of FDR and turns him into a blithe presidential Puck, dealing with his paralysis as just another political opponent to be high-handed into compromise. If Murray doesn’t convince us he’s history’s Roosevelt, he at least becomes the movie’s. More to the point, he makes you forget you’re watching Bill Murray.
Linney, more respected as an actor, gives a defeated performance in an impossible role. Daisy is a drab country mouse, a poor relation wasting away with her mother (Elinor Bron), until FDR, ensconced in his Hyde Park retreat, has her brought over to keep him company. She understands very quickly that this means she’s to “keep him company,” but Daisy’s response, beyond a spinster-ish crush, is hardly clear, despite a voice-over narration that chatters on without saying much. If there’s an emotional journey here — you may feel free to call it “drama” — the script never locates it and neither does Linney.
“Hyde Park on Hudson” puts more energy into depicting the administrative beehive surrounding the president, who hasn’t escaped the White House so much as brought the mountain to Mohammed. The year is 1939 and the newly crowned George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), have come for a stay. They’re angling to get America’s support for the coming war with Germany, but mostly, it seems, King George needs consoling. He’s taken the throne after the abdication of his smarter, sexier brother, and the pressure is hell on the king’s speech.
The film gets appreciable comedy out of the royals’ baffled encounter with Roosevelt and his fellow roughnecks, although the script’s obsession with hot dogs — an unfamiliar food to George and Elizabeth — eventually verges on the Freudian. We’re treated to the sight of Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams) stomping through with fierce diplomacy and fiercer teeth, posing as Franklin’s devoted spouse while forgiving him nothing. (King George whispers to his wife that, in any event, the first lady has a girlfriend down in D.C.) The heart of “Hyde Park on Hudson” is the late-night scene in FDR’s study in which the two national leaders — one elected, the other installed — bond over martinis, Roosevelt giving the young king a warmly paternal confidence boost. See? He’s not such a bad guy.
Then it’s back to the wandering hands and third-act humiliations, which register on Daisy’s face with the tearful resignation of a woman content to be a historical footnote. Murray’s Roosevelt sails on, our beloved satyr-in-chief. What laughs! What larks! What bollocks.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.