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Sexual Politics Storyline’s All Too Familiar, But ‘Primary Colors’ An Entertaining Ride

Fri., March 20, 1998, midnight

By now, even mentioning that “Primary Colors” is about a lusty political leader is akin to reporting that “Titanic” deals with a sinking ship.

You know where “Primary Colors” is going. You can tell how it will end. But getting there is a lot of fun.

The movie requires that its director, Mike Nichols, reacquaint himself with the satiric thrusts he once managed so gracefully. After the benign softness of such films as “The Birdcage” and “Regarding Henry,” he spit-shines his rapier wit, happily without adopting a condescending air.

The screenplay, by one-time partner Elaine May and based on Joe (Anonymous) Klein’s best seller, gives everyone a garden of opportunities. The dialogue is colorfully colloquial yet filled with its characters’ hard-earned wisdom. The only time the audience feels like it’s hearing a sermonette is after a melodramatic occurrence toward the film’s conclusion. Otherwise, the mood is crisp and, at least to an extent, nonjudgmental.

If you still need proof that John Travolta is no longer the sidewalk-strutter of “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease,” you should rush to the opening matinee of “Primary Colors.” With an abundance of polish that could never pass as true elegance, Travolta plays Southern governor Jack Stanton, a good-ole-boy candidate who knows how to milk his appealing personality. He cares about his country’s stability and consistently roots for the underdog. He’s a master of communication, knowing exactly where and for how long he should squeeze the arm of a potential voter.

Unfortunately, the arms of potential voters are not the only subjects of his squeezes. His insatiable desire for junk food is surpassed only by his insatiable desire for sex. He’s a great seducer of both men and women. He seduces his own gender psychologically. Women succumb to his physical and emotional campaigns.

Casting Travolta as Stanton was a stroke of serendipity for the filmmakers. Tom Hanks, America’s current sweetheart boy, was first offered the role. Being a Bill Clinton loyalist, he declined the part, somehow feeling that parallels might be drawn between Jack Stanton and the president.

Both Travolta and Stanton share a love of being loved. Travolta doesn’t create a character so much as deliver a star turn. But Stanton’s whole life is a star turn. It’s a completely seamless union of actor and character.

Travolta’s Stanton remains a giant, sequined beach ball at the mercy of the other characters’ maneuvers. Foremost among his court is his wife, Susan, his strongest defender but also his toughest disciplinarian and occasionally even his warden.

Emma Thompson makes Susan’s love for her congenitally unfaithful husband obvious. Touchingly, obvious, too, is her pain at his epic infidelities.

But Thompson, Nichols and May avoid giving Susan a stoic air. When it comes to members of their staff, Susan is as much a seducer as her husband, but with more panache. Her relationship with Jack is sometimes hauntingly warm, sometimes bracingly chilly.

Kathy Bates brings to robust life the character of a longtime Stanton fan who is shattered to learn some unsavory truths. Billy Bob Thornton is perfectly cast as a political strategist who places no boundaries on his own behavior. Superb character actress Caroline Aaron creates a strong impression as Susan’s longtime friend, who also happens to be nobody’s fool.

Too much footage is given to Adrian Lester as idealistic campaign manager Henry Burton, an African-American clone of George Stephanopoulos. We see everything through his eyes. Lester has an interesting, emotion-flooded face, but the character lacks any sense of mystery. Henry basically is Nick Carraway to Stanton’s glittering, glistening Gatsby.

“Primary Colors” is too long, and the film’s final, serious third sector definitely dawdles. But it’s lively and thoughtful. It also manages a difficult but showmanly trick. Both fans and detractors of President Clinton will find much to substantiate their views. It’s bipartisan entertainment.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Primary Colors” Locations: Newport, Spokane Valley Mall, Post Falls Cinema Credits: Directed by Mike Nichols, starring John Travolta, Adrian Lester, Emma Thompson Running time: 2:25 Rating: R

This sidebar appeared with the story: “Primary Colors” Locations: Newport, Spokane Valley Mall, Post Falls Cinema Credits: Directed by Mike Nichols, starring John Travolta, Adrian Lester, Emma Thompson Running time: 2:25 Rating: R


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