Politics aside, "The American President" is a delightful romantic comedy in which boy president meets girl, boy president loses girl and boy president gets girl.
But it's so hard to put the politics aside because the movie doesn't want to put the politics aside. The politics are hardly incidental; in fact, in a certain way, they're the point.
So let me just state the movie's bias up front and get it out of the way (and get it out of my system!). It is so liberal it will make your gums ache with its sanctimonious syrup of moral superiority, narcissism, sensitivity and sentimentality. It's drunk on the elixir of indiscriminate compassion. It seems to think there's an Oscar category for political correctness. It wants to give everybody a hug today. It celebrates, indeed wallows in, the pathologies that have made Rush Limbaugh and Gordon Liddy wealthy men.
President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is a quivering blob of virtue, a veritable Jell-O mold of strength, intelligence and courage. He's the man Bill Clinton must wake up every morning and wish he were. In fact, he's Bill Clinton re-imagined heroically and shorn of all those irritating little tics like Whitewater, Hillary, Gennifer Flowers, Vince Foster, the draft issue, pot without inhaling and so forth. He has better hair, he doesn't whine or talk too much and he never flip-flops. More incredibly: He believes in something.
A widower with a feisty daughter, he hasn't had a date since his wife died. And it's lonely at the top. One day, he bumbles in on a meeting between his top aide and two lobbyists from a hard-left enviro group, and hears as the sprightliest of them -- Sydney Ellen Wade, played by crinkle-smiled Annette Bening -- rips him up one side and down the other for refusing to play hardball with the Congress in pushing through legislation to compel Detroit to reduce emissions by 20 percent as soon as possible. (Pay no attention to that crash you just heard, which was the collapse of the American automobile industry and the loss of about a million jobs.) Is Prexy Andy ticked? Like, no way. He likes 'em with spunk.
Thus begins a courtship with explicit political meaning. I acknowledge that the movie is delightfully written by Aaron Sorkin and that both performers, particularly the ebullient Bening, make it a delight to sit through. But the subtext is the restoration of liberal political will to such an extent that it seems like a backlash against the election of 1994 and the profusion of all the little freshman Newt-boys in the House of Representatives, with their take-no-prisoners agenda. In a way, the film reminded me a little of the various interpretations of King Arthur in the wasteland -- about a fallen king in a bleak land who has come to believe in nothing, but by the magic of love is restored to potency and the land, in turn, to verdancy.
In "The American President's" case, "potency" isn't equated with sex (which it really doesn't care much about), but power. Through his burgeoning love, Andy the Man finds the guts and the strength to walk away from the politics of consensus and go for the big ones, damn the consequence. If politics is, as many have suggested, the art of the possible, "The American President," in its sophomoric way, doesn't care. It's about feeling good, not doing good.
Still, I repeat, it's generally delightful. Rob Reiner, who directed, has a deft gift for the nuances of the boy-girl thing, as he showed before in "When Harry Met Sally . . ." The gags are nicely constructed, and Douglas and Bening have that magic deal called chemistry: You feel that they like each other in ways more vivid than the mere mandate of the script.
The portrait of inside-the-White House (done with the total cooperation of the Clinton crew, no surprise) feels reasonably authentic, though it's been sentimentalized out of its socks. Martin Sheen, as right-hand man A.J. MacInerney, spends so much time beaming avuncularly and giving wisdom-rich glances to all and sundry I thought he'd been sculpted from strawberry jelly.
Of course a film that wears its political heart on its sleeve also produces cheap-shots like an ammunition factory. Was it so necessary, I wonder, to make Richard Dreyfuss' Republican senator and presidential contender quite so loathsome? Dreyfuss' Senator Bob Rumson looks like Roy Cohn with an enflamed urethra: His hooded, lightless eyes and his undulating vibrations of evil are coming straight from left field, no pun not intended.
Michael J. Fox is extremely annoying as the most zealous of the president's liberal advisers, and although the movie wants to see him as the conscience of the staff, as juxtaposed to the more pliant professionals around him, for some reason Fox brings too much edge to the part and feels grating. Was Fox subverting the role and Reiner not getting it?
In some sense, "The American President" squanders an opportunity. To me it would have been much more interesting if Bening had worked for, say, the NRA or the American Tobacco Institute, and the two fell in love despite their differences. Then it would be about coming together, working together, communicating. But no: "The American President" really only expresses a single idea, and it's not a helpful one: We're better than you, nana-nana-nah-nah.
Starring Michael Douglas and Annette Bening
Directed by Rob Reiner
Released by Castle Rock
Sun score: ***