Just when you think you know the direction Hyde Park on Hudson is heading, a simple drive into the countryside explodes your expectations. The movie, directed by Roger Michell (Morning Glory, Notting Hill), tells of a summer at President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s upstate New York estate on the eve of World War II, and the president shares a good chunk of that time with his doting cousin Daisy (Laura Linney). I’m not going to spoil that country drive for you, only to say that the giggles and head-scratching that follows speaks much to the boggled tone and near farcical obscurity that defines this bizarre little movie.
Roosevelt is played by Bill Murray, whom I was excited to see in the role, but as it turns out, has little to work with here. As a result he flops about as a grinning cad, holding court in the large study in the estate where he smokes, boozes, and holds receptions with ladies in waiting and heads of state alike. The key moment comes when the king and queen of England pay a visit, hoping to secure American sympathies for the British war effort. The home becomes a setting for a politicking of wits, as the dimwitted King Bertie (Samuel West — fancy two onscreen portrayals of the stuttering king in just three years) is provoked by the rascal FDR with such seeming offenses as an elaborately-staged hot dog picnic.
This scenario alone could have been fodder for a rather enjoyable film of political high-folly staring Murray as a roguish president lampooning the ostentation of the regal world of international policy (would love to have seen Murray handle some lines pulled from Duck Soup). But despite the occasional slapstick – a falling tray here, blushing queen there – Hyde Park on Hudson is as bipolar a movie as its portrayal of the president at its center. There is a self-serious undertone, narrated in voice over by Daisy that deals with FDR’s numerous extramarital affairs and these women’s strained but affectionate relationship to the president. Thus we get midnight rendezvous and hot tempered girls storming about the forest, as secret service agents and lovers alike look out for the fragile-hearted president. It closes with a bit of an oration about secrets and lovers, a pining for the days when the press was a boys club that helped keep the philandering of important men a secret and women were free to be the willing members of their harem. As a drama, it all falls flat. As a rumination on sexuality and sexual politics it’s a bit forced and muddled, and, like the king’s frankfurter, hard to swallow.