In case you haven’t noticed, it’s Oscar season: a special time of year when theaters are clogged with bland period flicks starring famous actors as political icons or perhaps even departed movie stars. These films are as common in the winter season as insufferable Christmas carols playing in stores and offer the same diminishing returns year after year. This time it’s Bill Murray who’s hoping to tickle awards voters with an impression/performance as FDR. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Bill Murray more than any portly film fan should love a comedic master that he’ll never meet. However, as much as I admire his late career shift into indie dramas and art films, this one is a little much. Murray deserved to win that Lost in Translation Oscar because it was an effortless performance with big laughs, personal resonance, and pained emotions that he delivered with no expectation of winning awards. He just provided a performance that happened to be great because he’s Bill Murray. Hyde Park on Hudson is Bill in full on, “gimme an Oscar mode” and even though he’s the best part of the unfortunate flick, it’s sad to see him finally sink to that point.
The movie is about a weekend when King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman) came to town hoping to talk America into joining that whole World War II thing overseas and also possibly even eat hot dogs. If you’re wondering whether the differences between regal Brits and vulgar Americans will be mined for “laughs,” rest easy. It happens. Oh, and Murray has an affair with Laura Linney’s quiet assistant/his cousin Daisy just to make sure you’re taking things seriously. You see, it turns out that even heroes who young women worship for their ability to quietly save a country can be sleazy and corrupt. One day a wheelchair bound president can be an inspiration to us all and the next day, there will be handjob in the woods and everything will be all topsy-turvy. That’s right, it’s a serious picture made for serious awards. But it’s also gently funny, because crowds must be pleased by any means possible with these sorts of movies.
For all its desperate attempts at being taken seriously, Hyde Park on Hudson works best when it’s essentially a big screen sitcom with Murray waxing sardonic as only he can while incorporating just enough of FDR’s ticks for the performances to work. Anyone who has seen an episode of Peep Show knows how good Coleman is as a charmingly befuddled straight woman, and even though West’s attempts to out stutter Colin Firth fail, the duo are decent stuffy foils to Murray’s presidential wiseacre. Whenever director Roger Mitchell (Noting Hill) tries to explore issues surrounding the war or attempts deconstructing the FDR myth, the film gets little shaky. There’s simply not enough substance here to support the planned gearshifts into drama and those sequences end up being a shadowy lit bore (shot like a horror movie without any actual visceral impact).
Unfortunately this brand of feather-light Oscar bait has enough of a built in audience to be a success. Sadly, people do love to watch famous actors impersonate other famous faces. It’s like getting to see two famous people in the same body, a dream People magazine subscribers have clung to for eons. Murray brings along a cult audience wherever he goes (well, as long as he’s not escorting an elephant down the highway), so plenty of tickets will probably be sold. The film will make money as planned and might even pull together a few nominations without actually winning awards. In the end, Hyde Park on Hudson’s destiny will be as a Sunday afternoon TV schedule filler. Granted you could do worse when seeking out hungover weekend entertainment and even on the big screen this feels like a TV movie. However, given the attention Hyde Park on Hudson could receive over awards season, we should all have been able to expect and even demand a little more.