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Like honeydipping and homemaking, political satire has become an endangered vocation. Mocking the public policies and personal foibles of people in power has been part of our national heritage since Philip Freneau’s irreverent pre-Revolutionary War poetry, but the outrageousness of our current leaders outpaces the satirist’s scorn. How can one find sufficiently derisive language to address the hypocrisy of a president who lachrymosely claims to feel the pain of the underclass while demolishing the rickety remnants of its survival system? Or capture the Rabelaisian absurdity of a chief executive whose place in history may well be determined by an alleged, unspecified genital anomaly? (“No balls,” postulates a Web wag.) Or do comedic justice to our veep, the quintessential techno-doofus whose millennium-fixed eyes fail to alert his clomping feet to the cowpies littering his path?

And these, lest we forget, are the good guys. Satirists must become suicidal at the prospect of finding some way to roast the reactionary bestiary: the self-immolating puff-pigeon (Newt), the leathery, slit-eyed amphibian (Armey), the raspy, battle-scarred fighting cock (Dornan), the snapping turtle (Gramm), the longevous leghorn with his Orange Crush-tinted comb (Thurmond). Is it any wonder that the few remaining practitioners of political satire are smirking, egomaniacal stand-ups (Bill Maher, Dennis Miller) or amateur-hour locals (Mark Russell, the Capitol Steps), gently gumming the hands that feed them?

Armed with a big-name cast and labor-of-love dedication (a 29-day shooting schedule and a $15-million budget), director Barry Levinson attempts to resurrect the art of political satire in Wag the Dog. But this obvious, doggedly dull comedy trips on its own tail. The Hilary Henkin-David Mamet screenplay, based on Larry Beinhart’s novel American Hero, sets its sights on targets previously decimated by several generations of filmmakers. Anybody who finds a fresh insight in this movie must have spent the last half-century in an ashram.

Cobbled together from bits of The Great McGinty, The Mouse That Roared, A Face in the Crowd, Capricorn One, and other vintage pictures, Wag the Dog chronicles the creation and execution of a contemporary political cover-up. Two weeks before his shoo-in re-election, the president is accused of fondling a “Firefly Girl” in the Oval Office. (The screenplay’s nervous invention of a bogus Girl Scout organization foreshadows its timidity in confronting more imposing authority figures.) Presidential adviser Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) hires media spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) to save the day. His solution is to devise a diversionary smokescreen by leaking rumors about a nonexistent war (with Albania) using nonexistent aircraft (the B-3 bomber) to the gullible, ravenous news media.

To create patriotic commercials and simulated news footage of this phony offensive, Brean enlists Hollywood mogul Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), who in turn assembles a creative task force including the finger-on-the-public-pulse Fad King (Denis Leary), costume designer Liz Butsky (Andrea Martin), and songwriter Johnny Green (Willie Nelson). The humor, such as it is, stems from this team’s efforts to counterfeit a plausible war on a Hollywood soundstage. With the help of computer-generated special effects, they concoct a fictional Albanian martyr (Kirsten Dunst), a sham military hero (a creepy-funny Woody Harrelson cameo), and a flag-waving “We Are the World” clone to rev up public support.

Levinson and company seem to think this stale stuff is hot news, but after a few reels—precisely at the point when I realized that the movie was too lily-livered to include a scene between the president and his nymphet prey—I found myself dozing, a state mirroring that of several of the cast members. To say that De Niro phones in his comatose performance underestimates the effort required to place a call. Although more animated, Heche brings no individuality or wit to what is admittedly a thankless straight-woman (forgive me) role. Leary and Martin are wasted in walk-ons, and Nelson is, inimitably, Nelson. Levinson’s visual style—dark, flat compositions, herky-jerky editing—looks cheap even after accounting for the film’s production restraints, and his undynamic direction keeps the narrative grinding at a monotonously even pace.

Hoffman’s performance, his most engaging work since Tootsie, is Wag the Dog’s only redeeming feature. Gleefully aping the appearance and mannerisms of flamboyant movie producer Robert Evans, Hoffman’s Motss, an effusive combination of show-biz expertise and insatiable ego, is more effervescent than the screenplay merits. Although the creators of this film appear to know little more about national politics than can be gleaned from watching an hour of CNN, they are on familiar turf tweaking Hollywood excesses and manage to invest the studio sequences with more edge than they muster elsewhere.

Because Levinson’s budget prevented him from staging crowd scenes, we are forced to accept on faith that the Albanian War media scam dupes the credulous public. The movie’s ads offer conclusive proof that it has bamboozled reviewers. Siskel and Ebert’s thumbs are stuck “way up,” Rolling Stone’s critic calls it “outrageous fun,” and Newsweek deems it “the most wickedly entertaining movie of the season.” Conspiracy hunters are likely to finds this collusion even less probable that the one at the thudding heart of this snoozer. CP