What happens when life starts to look a lot like art? Ask the makers of PRIMARY COLORS--they'll say they don't know what you're talking about.

Mike Nichols wants to make one thing perfectly clear. ”This movie is not about Clinton,” the director insists, bristling at the very suggestion. ”It’s about the Clinton thing. It’s about the Kennedys and the Jeffersons and the Lincolns. It’s about us — the public — and how we elect these guys. That’s a big distinction.”

Uh-huh. And oral sex isn’t adultery.

Whatever else one might say about John Travolta’s Southern-fried performance as the silver-streaked, doughnut-gobbling, bimbo-bedding presidential candidate in Primary Colors — Nichols’ $65 million screen adaptation of Joe Klein’s 1996 best-selling roman a clef about life on the campaign trail with the Clinton clan — nobody is going to mistake him for Honest Abe. And Emma Thompson, doing a flinty Midwestern accent to play his brilliant but long-suffering attorney wife, won’t leave many confused about her real-life counterpart either (even if she is missing Hillary’s blond highlights). In fact, pretty much everybody in this movie — from Billy Bob Thornton’s redneck-and-proud-of-it political strategist (read: James Carville) to newcomer Adrian Lester’s thoughtful young campaign adviser (a black George Stephanopoulos) to Kathy Bates’ gun-toting ”Dustbuster” (modeled on Clinton troubleshooter Betsey Wright) — is so transparently familiar it’s a miracle Kenneth Starr hasn’t subpoenaed them yet.

Part satire, part political biopic, and all media-age morality play, Primary Colors goes where no light presidential comedy has gone before — reality, circa right now. Unbuckling the Beltway and letting it all hang out, the film leaves no Big Issue unaddressed: What happens to ethics and honor once they enter an election cycle? How much do we really need to know about a presidential candidate’s sex life? Can a worthy White House aspirant be both a high-minded idealist and a wife-betraying horndog?

In other words, pretty much the same questions being raised every night on CNN over the last nine weeks. With future No Excuses jeans spokesmodel Monica Lewinsky hogging all the headlines, Primary Colors couldn’t be more auspiciously — or dangerously — timed. How do you sell a picture about the Commander-in-Chief’s alleged extramarital hanky-panky when phrases like ”presidential kneepads” are being bandied about on the Sunday-morning talk shows? It’s a tricky marketing challenge for Universal — and it isn’t the only one. From the beginning, this film has shown a Clinton-esque knack for controversy, with press reports of White House pressure to soften the script, of actors bailing out because of friendships with the First Family, even of a Scientology connection.

”The press has covered this movie more than any I’ve done in my life,” offers Travolta. ”After Saturday Night Fever.”

Nichols puts it more emphatically. ”What about the f — -ing picture?” he says, all but throwing up his hands. ”What about the movie? What about the heart and soul of the story? We’re getting into a very strange place with journalists and the public, where the scandalous headline is the only important thing. It’s appalling.”

Primary Colors
  • Movie