In shadow of scandal, 'Wag' keeps wagging

January 27, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

It's so "Wag."

The words on all the pundits' lips over the weekend -- aside from "if" and "smear" and "impeachment" -- were "Wag the Dog," Barry Levinson's adaptation of the Larry Beinhart novel that has proved uncannily prescient as the Monica Lewinski saga has unfolded.

In the film, the president of the United States -- never shown -- is caught pursuing ex-officio activities with an underage Firefly Girl, just days before his re-election bid. To deflect the voters' attention from the budding scandal, a spin doctor (played by Robert De Niro) engages a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to create a television war a la Persian Gulf, all sound and fury on the little blue box, signifying nothing.

Not only are the circumstances of life eerily similar to those of art -- right down to the private office right off the Oval one -- but White House operatives are reported to have said that even if Clinton wanted to get tough with Iraq, it would look too much like the movie.

It would just be too "Wag."

So has all this free publicity helped Levinson's film?

"There was no extreme increase or decrease anywhere in the country," said Al Shapiro, president of distribution for New Line Cinema, the film's distributor. "Wag the Dog," playing at 1,750 theaters, grossed $4,381,332 over the weekend, putting it in sixth place in the country (below "Fallen" but ahead of "Hard Rain"). "It's down 18 percent from last week, which is good -- 'Good Will Hunting' was down 32 percent," said Shapiro.

Although New Line executives did briefly discuss changing the film's marketing campaign to exploit its real-life re-enactment in the White House, cooler heads prevailed. "We went ahead with our business plan and did what we were going to do all along," said Shapiro, who admitted there was some concern that events in the White House would negatively affect attendance. "You know, 'Why buy a ticket when you can watch it free on television?' But that doesn't seem to be happening."

As for "Primary Colors," Mike Nichols' adaptation of Joe Klein's roman a clef about Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, it is still scheduled for release on March 20.

Pub Date: 1/27/98

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