Laura Linney and Bill Murray in "Hyde Park on Hudson"
Hyde Park on Hudson
"Awkward" doesn't begin to describe the first intimate moment between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his distant cousin, Margaret "Daisy" Suckley. Playing the polio-stricken president, a poker-faced Bill Murray gazes straight ahead, his liver-spotted paw reaching for Laura Linney's hand as the couple sits in his convertible, parked in a field bursting with purple wildflowers. In a flash of awareness, Daisy moves their clasped hands to the 32nd president's inner thigh. British director Roger Michell compounds the clumsiness of the exchange by cutting to an extreme long shot that captures the car -- and the "great man" -- bobbing up and down, as though the scene were taken directly from a teen-sex comedy. The tone is off and off-putting.
Is this a love story or a farce?
Daisy's romance-novel narration sets the stage for a love story. FDR's mother (Elizabeth Wilson) summons the mousy young woman to the family estate at Hyde Park on Hudson in upstate New York to help the president forget "the weight of the world." Awestruck by his political status and celebrity, Daisy seemingly adores him for no other reason. Neither of them is particularly charming or engaging during their time spent together. Sparks never fly.
Scenes heat up when King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) arrive for the weekend -- but not between FDR and Daisy, whom he doesn't even invite to the formal dinner. America's president and the stuttering British royal of "The King's Speech" do have great chemistry. In one of the few memorable moments of the movie, the endearing Bertie bemoans his constant stumbling over words. Murray's Roosevelt rises with great effort, using the strength of his arms to drag his body and lifeless limbs to another chair on the other side of the table. The two world leaders share the burden of physical challenges, and Britain needs American support as the ominous clouds of war gather across the pond.
But playwright-screenwriter Richard Nelson and Michell ("Notting Hill") showcase FDR's political smarts while staging the blue-blood visit as primarily a comedy of manners. The help staff become slapstick clowns; the monarchs wonder if they're being mocked; Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams) invites American Indians to perform interminably at a picnic; and hot dogs become a tired running joke, offering sexual innuendo when the president asks Daisy to show the British couple how to eat a particularly large one. Although the pace picks up when the royals tour Hyde Park USA, the comic tone seems appropriate for an entirely different movie.
Murray's performance is drolly understated, and Linney's character is so dull that the role offers the talented actor nothing to do. On the other hand, West and his stammering provide much more than meets the ear: His acting crafts a sweet-natured, good-humored and devoted public servant who will steal your heart, if not the show.
The historical accuracy of whether FDR and Daisy were kissing cousins is questionable. More certain is the awkwardness of "Hyde Park on Hudson," a British production wavering between the serious and the cheeky before becoming oddly disturbing.
Rated R for brief sexuality. 1 hour, 35 minutes.
- Susan Tavernetti