Bill Murray resides in his own unique sphere. A revered icon for a couple generations of comics, not to mention a respected dramatic actor to boot, he does everything slightly differently than what’s expected from your typical movie star, whether it’s working without an agent or turning down a surely lucrative paycheck for “Ghostbusters 3.” So it shouldn’t be surprising that when he signs up for what seems like an obvious Oscar-bait role as President Franklin D. Roosevelt in “Hyde Park on Hudson,” he figures out a way to give it more subtlety and grace than you’d expect. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to recommend this forgettable bauble.
Set during a weekend in upstate New York in the summer of 1939, this slight comedy-drama recounts the clandestine affair between Roosevelt and his distant cousin Daisy (Laura Linney) in the midst of an urgent meeting between the president and England’s King George VI (Samuel West) as Europe inches closer to a second world war. Seen through Daisy’s outsider perspective, “Hyde Park on Hudson” aims to offer a more human, vulnerable glimpse of men in power.
“Notting Hill” director Roger Michell gives “Hyde Park” a light, unhurried air that might come as a relief in an awards season otherwise stuffed with searing, ambitious dramas. (At 95 minutes, it’s a full hour shorter than works like “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Lincoln.”) But rather than serving as a refreshing sorbet, this true-life tale is merely bland, providing little insight into what FDR saw in Daisy or how the president’s meeting with the king—the first time such a summit between the countries’ two leaders occurred on U.S. soil—deepened their relationship. Despite the clear emotional and political stakes in the balance, “Hyde Park” plays like a diverting anecdote and nothing more.
Still, Murray makes for an amusing FDR. When an actor portrays an historic figure, it’s typical to compliment the performance with clichés such as “he disappears into the role,” but what’s funny is that Murray takes the opposite tack. His Roosevelt isn’t that far removed from his characters in “Broken Flowers” or “Moonrise Kingdom,” exuding Murray’s trademark laid-back serenity that can go from droll to melancholy depending on the moment. It’s a high-profile role that Murray aces by playing it charmingly low-key, appropriate for a president already six years in office and wholly comfortable in his own skin. By comparison, his supporting cast withers on the vine. Linney has little to do as the sad-sack Daisy, while West tackles a regal role that won Colin Firth an Oscar in “The King’s Speech” just two years ago. This King George VI, like “Hyde Park” in general, seems nice enough but not someone who leaves much of an impression.
Critic’s Score: C+
Directed by Roger Michell
Casting by Gail Stevens and Ellen Lewis
Starring Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Samuel West