'Wag the Dog' Is a Comedy With Some Real Bite to It

TIMES FILM CRITIC

"Why does a dog wag its tail?" Glad you asked. "Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail were smarter, the tail would wag the dog."

With a title taken from that tart bit of pre-credits philosophy, "Wag the Dog" is set in the topsy-turvy times we live in, where illusion means more than reality and a lie is halfway around the world while truth is still pulling on its boots.

A gloriously cynical black comedy that functions as a wicked smart satire on the interlocking worlds of politics and show business, "Wag the Dog" confirms every awful thought you've ever had about media manipulation and the gullibility of the American public. And it has a great deal of fun doing it.

Directed by Barry Levinson and starring Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Anne Heche, "Wag" is also that rare major player production that was made on a sane budget of $15 million, not enough money for James Cameron to clear his throat. And it was shot in such an expeditious manner that the producers include a line in the final credits specifically thanking "the cast and crew for completing principal photography in 29 days!"

The reason people accustomed to a more, shall we say, leisurely pace agreed to work so crisply had to be the lure of "Wag's" deft script. Written by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet from a novel called "American Hero" by Larry Beinhart, "Wag" is a sharp-edged farce where the lines are hard enough to cut glass and the plot's gleeful twists and complications never flag.

Though "Wag the Dog" focuses on a popular president who is scant days shy of reelection, we never see the man. But we are told of his actions, specifically that he badly misbehaved with an underage Firefly girl in the Oval Office. Now the Washington Post has the story and the disloyal opposition, sensing blood, is about to run TV attack ads pegged to the music of "Thank Heaven for Little Girls."

When trouble strikes, or so White House operative Winifred Ames (Heche) reveals, the president has only one motto: Get Conrad Brean. As played by De Niro, Brean may look like a shambling suburban Redskins fan, but beneath that disheveled exterior he's an unflappable political spin doctor, capable of salvaging any situation and keeping the dogs of war at bay.

Brean's mandate is to use any means necessary to distract the American public from the budding scandal. He's a master of planting disinformation, so official spokesmen can honestly deny it and thereby make people believe it's true. His fabrications don't have to prove out, they just have to con the electorate for those few days until the election.

Brean's brainstorm is to concoct a crisis with Albania, insisting that this hapless country is "a staging ground for terrorism." Why Albania? Why not Albania? To make the story stick, Brean and company go out to Hollywood and elicit the support of one of the movie business' top producers, the legendary Stanley Motss (Hoffman). His job, should he accept it, is to manufacture not a real war but a media one, to create the images and campaign that will convince the country that something terribly dangerous is going on in that weak Balkan country.

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It's common knowledge in the real Hollywood that the outward appearance of Stanley Motss, his house, his clothing and hairstyle, are inspired by producer Robert Evans, whom Hoffman has been imitating in private since Evans produced the Hoffman-starring "Marathon Man" in 1976.

But Hoffman is able to go way past caricature here. He brings such zest to his characterization that it is Motss' zany passion for producing that ignites Brean's plot and carries the picture. First he pulls together his crack team, including the Fad King (Denis Leary), who can start trends before others even spot them, and resourceful songwriter Johnny Green (Willie Nelson), who complains that Albania is a hard word to rhyme.

Seeing Motss at work is a privilege. Who else could fabricate atrocity footage from war-torn Albania on a local sound stage, simultaneously reassuring a nervous starlet (Kirsten Dunst), telling technicians to "punch up a burning bridge" and arguing with the president ("I hate when they interfere") about what kind of kitten will be optically added to the girl's arms to complete the picture.

No matter the nature of the crises he faces (and this film has an endless number), Motss calls it nothing compared to what he went through in the past, when, for instance, "I was four months into 'Song of Songs' and realized I didn't have the rights."

Motss brazens it out with the CIA, insisting to wavering members of his team that "the war isn't over until I say it's over," and leaves no doubt in anyone's mind that "producing is being a samurai warrior." It's been so long, perhaps since "Tootsie" and "Rain Man," that Hoffman has taken a satisfying comic role that it's good to be reminded of the gift he has for funny business.

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It's not only Hoffman but everyone on both sides of the camera who seem to have been energized by the challenge of working fast with quality material. The only sad thing about "Wag the Dog" is that it suggests the kind of films we're missing out on because of an elephantine production system that makes reasonably priced films with major talent as rare as actors seeing any money on studio profit-participation deals.

Underneath the humor, not surprisingly, "Wag" is making serious points about what's wrong with our political system and media culture. Of course we'd like to believe we're not all that gullible, that there is a limit to what we can be manipulated into, but the evidence points elsewhere. When a character says, apropos of everything, "it's a good thing Jimmy Stewart didn't live to see this," "Wag the Dog" leaves you without the power to disagree.

* MPAA rating: R, for language. Times guidelines: Those old enough to appreciate the humor will likely not be put off by the profanity.

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'Wag the Dog'

Dustin Hoffman: Stanley Motss

Robert De Niro: Conrad Brean

Anne Heche: Winifred Ames

Woody Harrelson: Sgt. William Schumann

Dennis Leary: Fad King

A Tribeca/Baltimore Pictures/Punch production, released by New Line Cinema. Director Barry Levinson. Producers Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro, Levinson. Screenplay by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet, based on the book "American Hero" by Larry Beinhart. Cinematographer Robert Richardson. Editor Stu Linder. Costumes Rita Ryack. Music Mark Knopfler. Production design Wynn Thomas. Art director Mark Worthington. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

* Opens Thursday exclusively at AMC Century 14, Century City Shopping Center, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 553-8900.

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