FILM The critics: Yes, yes, yes, Mr President

"LIBERTY is moving," are the first words of Rob Reiner's The American President (15). Never mind that this "Liberty" is, in fact, just the secret service code-name for the President (Michael Douglas), who is embarking on his morning schedule. It is a line that rings resonantly in the Land of the Free right now, at a time when government has been standing still. The American President presents a bustling new world, where the chief executive moves as swiftly and purposefully as his secret service men. The movie flies on wings of fantasy as strong and sturdy as those of the proud American eagle, which features in the opening montage of presidential portraits and revered national icons.

Both romance and romanticisation are the movie's business. Douglas plays Andrew Shepherd, a US President entering the fourth year of his first term with surging approval ratings. The good Shepherd is a liberal dream President: humane yet decisive, he closes meetings with a brisk, "OK, gentlemen, let's move on it," which plays like a reproach to the current real-life incumbent's prevarication. As if in answer to stereotypical associations of worthiness with woolliness, this liberal has a first-class mind, rebutting opponents with orderly five-point answers. He never loses his cool, except in righteous anger. He even finds time to break from his schedule to tell his daughter: "It's OK - because, if there's anything you want to talk about ... "

Shepherd is a widower, and it is suggested that his wife's death from cancer may have been a shield from character attacks during the election campaign. As another election approaches, he makes his first political mistake: he falls in love. The press latches on to his liaison with environmental lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening). Political opponents crow: "What are we supposed to call her? The First Mistress?"

The early scenes are stiff with exposition and presidential protocol. Then the icy staidness of the White House feels the warm blast of Annette Bening's personality. She lambasts the lily-livered environmental bill, before shrinking in mortification when she discovers that the President himself has been listening at the door. This volatile mixture of strength and fragility is at the heart of Bening's performance. A strong yet vulnerable older woman of the sort we see all too rarely in the movies, she shows both poise and awe in her palatial new surroundings. Her look of childish pleasure at the pomp of a state reception is all the more remarkable, considering that, as the wife of Warren Beatty, she is practically American royalty herself. Nor does her good-natured, slightly ditsy intelligence seem a movie concoction. She lights up the film with the hard flame of reality.

Much of the comedy comes from playing off the presidential persona against the man behind it. Douglas is an ideal vehicle for such gags (although the producers' first choice, Robert Redford, would also have had an iconic suitability). We are so used to seeing Michael Douglas in salacious or sensationalist roles that it is funny to see him tackling domesticity, rubbing his hands in anticipation of "meatloaf night". Douglas has shed his sullenness and seediness but kept the pout of (now politically justified) defiance.

The sharp script is by Aaron Sorkin, whose last screenplay was A Few Good Men (also directed by Reiner). The films are a powerful one-two - a riveting courtroom drama and a deft comedy. Reiner's liberal intentions in A Few Good Men got blasted away by Jack Nicholson's crazily convincing performance as the military martinet who insisted on national security over human rights. There is no danger of missing The American President's agenda. If anything, the purity of Shepherd's politics detracts from their impact, giving them an easily dismissible utopianism. Elsewhere, though, Sorkin is both funny and pointed: as in his suggestion that the President is more anxious to preserve power than exercise it; and in the wonderfully witty scene when Shepherd expresses his anxiety, before making love to Sydney for the first time, that his power may lead to misleading expectations of his potency. Never has presidential machismo been more gracefully satirised.

Like all good Presidents, Douglas has a strong supporting team. Martin Sheen is his chief of staff, the home-town friend whose wry courtliness speaks of long suffering; Michael J Fox's thrusting domestic policy adviser is a ringer for Clinton's whizzkid aide George Stephanopoulos; and David Paymer wilily wisecracks as an unprincipled pollster. Best of all is Douglas's Republican goad, Richard Dreyfuss, who casts aside his bonhomie to appear as sleek and stately as a hovering battleship.

The week's two best other releases are both about brothers. In Diane Keaton's assured directing debut, Unstrung Heroes (PG), newcomer Nathan Watt plays 12-year-old Steven Lidz, whose father Sid (John Turturro) is a hare-brained inventor in 1960s Los Angeles. If you find Sid flaky, you should meet his brothers, Danny (Michael Richards) and Arthur (Maury Chaykin). They are the really flipped Lidz. Paranoid about a universal conspiracy and anti-Semitism, they talk of ominous "repercussions", barricading themselves in a room with stacks of old newspapers to keep out a world that, they're convinced, contains only eight trustworthy people. Young Steven is soon seduced by his uncles' battiness, which offers an escape from home where his mother (another lovely, warm performance from Andie MacDowell) is dying of cancer. What at first seems mere zaniness turns into a poignant commentary on the strategies immigrants use to survive - the way eccentricity becomes an assertion of identity.

The Brothers McMullen (15) is a shoestring comedy (the winner at last year's Sundance Festival) about the impossibility of a healthy sex life if you're a Catholic. The eponymous McMullens comprise mild-mannered cynic Barry (played by the film's writer-director, Ed Burns), who scorns commitment; older brother Jack (Jack Mulcahy), a devotedly married new man - ripe for an affair, we soon learn; and recent grad Patrick (Mike McGlone), balancing the demands of his faith with the benefits of his Jewish princess girlfriend (including a job and apartment, courtesy of her father). With a wistful, ironic tone, the film plays with romantic cliches. Burns is by far its most compelling presence, and the movie can sag when he is off-screen. But it presents glancing insights into repression, the terror of modern relationships, and, in a memorable metaphor involving an unpeeled banana, the male need for a protective shield. Most new Manhattan wits get compared to Woody Allen. Here this is apt, since Burns, like Allen, makes comedy out of the collision between the metaphysical and the mundane.

An entomologist's intimacies are the subject of Philip Haas's Angels and Insects (18), an adaptation of AS Byatt's novella Morpho Eugenia. Mark Rylance plays a mid-Victorian naturalist, a dour, flat-vowelled northerner who returns from the Amazon rainforest to work for a wealthy collector. He ends up marrying the man's daughter (Patsy Kensit), to his surprise and to the snobbish fury of her brother (Douglas Henshall). More shocks await in the bedroom, as his wife alternates between ardour and abstinence. The only sanity on the estate is provided by Kristin Scott Thomas's governess. Soon, of course, parallels appear between insect and human worlds, and the film - somewhat wordily - is delving into ideas of altruism, society, female emancipation, class, genealogy and Darwinism. As in his similarly fascinating but frustrating The Music of Chance, Haas, with the help of a Nymanesque score and vivid if static photography, efficiently transfers a complex text to the screen without ever quite animating it.

The title of Dr Jekyll and Ms Hyde (12) doesn't exactly augur well - but not as badly as the film turns out. A perfume researcher (Tim Daly) finds himself turning into Sean Young (a female actress, lest the name confuse). The best Jekyll adaptations have always transformed a single actor - half the fun is in the metamorphosis - and have had much more logic and rigour than this slipshod affair. The idea could have been riotously funny, but the most obvious themes, such as the Tiresian idea of an individual experiencing sex from both gender perspectives, are muffed - or should one say cocked up?

Cinema details: Review, page 92

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