NEW YORK — Read before the latest round of White House controversies, the 1996 bestseller "Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics" seemed exaggerated in its portrayal of a presidential candidate besieged by ruthless allegations and the weighty burden of a checkered past. Today its tone seems reasonably close to the actual events of recent headlines.
This doesn't mean the fictional tale - written by an anonymous author subsequently revealed to be Joe Klein, a political columnist - is based point-for-point on experiences of the current White House occupant. Many of the book's incidents have no direct counterparts in real life. But that hasn't stopped its Hollywood adapters from playing up resemblances for all they're worth, right down to the Bill Clinton hairdo sported by John Travolta in the central role.
A mass-market movie based on a noisily promoted novel about Washington's most questionable behaviors could easily have turned into a forgettable exercise in wide-screen exploitation. Fortunately for audiences, a team of first-rate talents signed onto the project, headed by director Mike Nichols and scriptwriter Elaine May, longtime partners who recently renewed their creative partnership with "The Birdcage," another razor-sharp social satire.
"Primary Colors" continues their streak, blending sardonic commentary on the political system with a three-dimensional portrait of a would-be president who's at once an incorrigible scoundrel and an utterly sincere "people person" who truly wants to help the little folks ignored by business-as-usual politicians.
Striking an excellent balance between wry cultural critique and crisp entertainment value, the picture is as smart and funny as any comedy-drama in recent memory.
As for the acting, next year's Academy Award race could be half over even before it starts. Travolta gives the wittiest, savviest performance of his career to date - as a Clinton-like comeback kid, he's a natural for the part to begin with - backed up by a dream supporting cast. Standouts include Emma Thompson as the candidate's wife; Kathy Bates as a larger-than-life aide; newcomer Adrian Lester as the African-American campaigner through whose eyes we see the story; and Billy Bob Thornton as one of their cronies.
Sure to capture a walloping share of the box-office vote, "Primary Colors" is the best Hollywood movie so far in this increasingly impressive year.
* Rated R; contains a great deal of foul language, a scene of threatened sexual violence, and much discussion of illicit sexual behavior.