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WAG THE DOG

(15) HH

Director: Barry Levinson

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro

If it has never once occurred to you that the world's political structure is underpinned by greed, corruption and deceit, then you will get a big kick out of Wag the Dog, a film which aims to indict both Hollywood and Washington on charges of gross fraudulence. But you can almost be distracted from what the film lacks in originality and precision by the unbelievable prescience contained in the finer points of its scenario. On the evidence of what he has cooked up here, the co-writer David Mamet shall henceforth be known as Mystic Mamet.

A fortnight before election day, the President finds himself embroiled in a potentially devastating sex scandal involving a teenage girl. Before you can say "Monica Lewinsky", pictures of him embracing her on the White House lawn are splashed all over the nation's TV screens. A red-hot spin doctor, Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), is called in to find the silver lining in this cloud, and enlists the help of the egotistical movie producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), in fabricating a war against Albania which will divert attention away from the President's indiscretions and drum up a bit of good old-fashioned patriotism.

With such topical material in their hands, it's disappointing that the film-makers didn't have a few more pertinent points to make about the relationship between politics and show-business. The idea of fabricating hostilities to boost Presidential popularity was used to a more purely humorous effect in Michael Moore's Canadian Bacon, while the conspiracy theories expounded by the screenplay will be familiar from the monologues of Jello Biafra or Henry Rollins. The film only impresses in the areas which could be said to function independently of its pursuit of satirical bull's eyes. It's reassuring that the documentary-style camerawork, which television dramas have brought perilously close to cliche, can still add a frisson of spontaneity and savagery when judiciously applied to tense situations, as it is at several points in the film. And Mark Knopfler's plaintive, shuffling score deserves a special mention for underlining the pathetic desperation of these characters for whom truth carries the tang of arsenic.

Despite the combined reputations of Mamet and the director Barry Levinson, both renowned for their magnetism with actors, the film offers its prestigious cast slim pickings. De Niro, William H Macy, Anne Heche and Willie Nelson (the country singer so memorable in Alan Rudolph's Songwriter) are scandalously underused, while only Hoffman gets the chance to sparkle. In a bouffant wig and a pair of glasses that resemble two television screens glued together, he makes a glorious pantomime dame, tottering around in a private universe that's a monument to his own vanity. "Did you know there is no Oscar for Best Producer?" he asks, gobsmacked, at one point. It may be the Academy's idea of a gag to have nominated Hoffman for an Oscar this year. But, as with most of Wag the Dog, it's a joke which has no resonance in the outside world.

FALLEN

(15) HHH

Director: George Hoblit

Starring: Denzel Washington, Donald Sutherland

Can it really be that the Rolling Stones's music still has the Satanic connotations that once made otherwise sane people believe that these five lads were devils in blue jeans? Interview with the Vampire employed their song "Sympathy for the Devil" over its end credits, while Devil's Advocate used "Paint It Black" to hammer home its Faustian message.

Now the new thriller Fallen uses "Time is on My Side" as its main theme - it's the song that the killer Elias Koteas howls at the top of his voice as he is put to death under the watchful eye of Denzel Washington, the cop who caught him. But the music doesn't die with the murderer - as Koteas's rotten soul drifts into the body of a prison guard and is then passed on through touch like a game of tag, Washington hears that song being whistled in his own office, and realises that he's being hounded by an out-of-body stalker.

Fallen is a piece of noir-ish mumbo-jumbo with misguided philosophical pretensions, but I happily swooned along to most of it, since its central conceit is pursued to such absurd extremes by the screenwriter Nicholas Kazan. From the jokey Chandler-esque voiceover by Washington announcing "I wanna tell you 'bout the time I almost died", to an ending which is one of the few in recent cinema that can justifiably be called surprising, this is a picture which takes itself seriously enough to be genuinely absorbing, whilst retaining a mischievous sense of humour.

THE ROAD TO NHILL

(15) HH

Director: Sue Brooks

Starring: Bill Kerr, Bill Young

Showing in the Barbican's Australian Film Festival is this comedy about a remote Australian community thrown into turmoil when the car carrying members of the local ladies' bowling team has an accident.

AS GOOD AS IT GETS

(15) HHHH

Director: James L Brooks

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear

Whenever a film is likened to a sitcom, the comparison is usually a disparaging one. But there are sitcoms and then there are sitcoms, and the writer-director James L Brooks has been an instrumental force in some of the best - on his CV you'll find writing or producing credits for Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Simpsons. There's what you might call a sitcom sensibility looming over As Good As It Gets, which throws together a curmudgeonly old bigot, Melvyn Udall (Jack Nicholson), who also happens to suffer from extreme obsessive-compulsive disorders; the feisty waitress Carol (Helen Hunt), the only woman who Melvyn will agree to be served by in his favourite restaurant; Melvyn's neighbour, a gay artist called Simon (Greg Kinnear). Oh, and Simon's dog, who is the first to tease out the glimmers of humanity lurking inside Melvyn.

If it sounds like a horribly formulaic story of bonding and loving thy neighbour, then that's about right. But the sparkiness of Brooks's writing, and the crackling energy of the cast make the picture far better than it has any right to be. It's a mark of the talent involved that when the life lessons do finally come around, you can swallow them with dignity, safe in the knowledge that if you are being manipulated, then at least it's by a film-maker who has the good sense to mix in some medicine to help the sugar go down. It may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but when it comes to big-screen sitcoms, As Good As It Gets is as good as it gets.

Ryan Gilbey

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