Who would average Americans rather spend time with right now: the leader of the free world, or a talking Chihuahua? We’re about to find out. Oliver Stone’s W. — a tragicomic account of George W. Bush’s (Josh Brolin) life — just opened in over 2,000 theaters. Curiosity has been running high on political blogs, but as for the rest of the country? Expect the box office to keep going to the dogs.
The timing should be ideal for a movie that examines Bush 43. But when Stone fast-tracked W. earlier this year, he couldn’t have known it would be overtaken by real-world events like a faltering economy. Or that Brolin’s channeling would be eclipsed by Tina Fey’s scary-good take on Sarah Palin. Or that, in a riveting election, the only person no one would be talking about was the current inhabitant of the White House. Bush fatigue is upon us, with his approval rating at a historic low. And his supporters are almost certainly not in the market for Stone’s opinion.
For the culture at large, of course, the election has been a godsend. The VP debate nabbed 69.9 million viewers. Cable news channels and blogs have seen huge surges in info-hungry traffic. (CNN, for example, is up 165 percent in prime time versus the same period last year.) SNL, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report are expanding beyond their usual base of die-hard political junkies and insomniacs. In fact, Fey’s skits reintroduced SNL to the Facebook generation — and fueled a 50 percent ratings jump this season. This weekend, when Brolin hosts the show, he’s likely to unleash his dead-on Dubya cackle. It could prove risky: Viewers may feel they’ve already seen the movie without leaving their couches.
The studio behind W. insists Brolin’s gig represents a powerful chance to expand its audience. ”SNL has really opened the door for us in terms of looking at politics through a humorous lens,” says Lionsgate president Tom Ortenberg. ”[W.] is broad-based entertainment — albeit provocative, informative, and charged.” (For EW’s review, read here) Yet enthusiasm for political satire has not translated to enthusiasm for political movies in years. Last weekend, CIA thriller Body of Lies became the latest topical film to bomb. ”Audiences are having a tough time with this material, especially if it asks them to look at their own responsibility,” says director Paul Haggis, whose Iraq war whodunit In the Valley of Elah faltered last year.
Professional guesstimators predict that W. could pull off a $10 million opening weekend, not bad given its relatively cheap $30 million budget. But continued attention to the volatile Obama-McCain horse race will be a factor, as will decidedly mixed reviews. Still, Ortenberg believes W. appeals to moviegoers on both sides of the aisle: ”We’re giving people the opportunity to vote at the box office three weeks before they vote at the ballot box.” And that, America, is the audacity of hope.