Hyde Park on Hudson

It was on the same fateful summer weekend in 1939, with the English royals visiting for the first time and worrying over war and wiener etiquette, that Franklin Roosevelt’s fifth cousin Daisy finally wised up to his philandering. This was not easy for Daisy; having recently been summoned to the president’s upstate New York retreat in order to see his stamp collection, she wound up jerking him off to a Glenn Miller tune in a meadow full of wildflowers, and becoming rather moony about the great man thereafter.

Or so Hyde Park on Hudson very politely insists. The premise of director Roger Michell’s film, from Richard Nelson’s script, is not implicitly contentious. The problem is that it’s not implicitly compelling either. A mousy naif, Daisy also serves as the movie’s narrator. “They all wanted something from him,” she tells us, in a tone that seems uninvitingly to split the difference between romance novel and children’s book, “and all he wanted was to relax.” All she wanted, maybe, was to please him and to maintain his preferential attention. But she wasn’t sure what she wanted, or at least the filmmakers weren’t. These are not the highest of dramatic stakes.

But what if, in addition to being a faintly prestigious period piece, so obviously aimed at the audience for The King’s Speech as to include a supporting role for that film’s protagonist, Hyde Park on Hudson also is supposed to be a comedy? Importantly, this Daisy is played by Laura Linney, whose career has shrewdly reconciled dimpled guilelessness with squinting calculation, and accordingly taken her from enlivening episodes of Tales of the City to introducing episodes of Downton Abbey. Even more importantly, this Mr. Roosevelt is played by Bill Murray.

Delight at his own good fortune always has read well on the face of Murray, who looks increasingly pleased to have figured out how little he now needs to do. Here, with Michell seeming reluctant to intrude, Murray gently guides his old familiar unkempt charm into relatively new territory: the polio-stricken POTUS who also played around. Now of course we wouldn’t want Murray to get all Daniel Day-Lewis on us, and indeed this particular big-screen presidential portrait, essentially a sketch, does at least seem refreshing for its lack of ponderousness.

But we are within our rights to hope for something more innately, less politely Murrayish than merely peering through a pince-nez, champing at a cigarette holder, and taking too much female affection for granted. In addition to Daisy, other women in this Mr. Roosevelt’s life include his mother (Elizabeth Wilson), his personal secretary (Elizabeth Marvel) and his wife (Olivia Williams), yet more sharp actors mired in dull circumstances. As scenes linger, filling up on dead air instead of humor or tension, we’re left to reflect on how movies and the people in them have evolved in the years since, say, Rushmore, another strategic seriocomic application of Murray and Williams and hand-job jokes.

Yes, a comedy would do quite nicely, but not one so safe and dainty and unfortunately sexless as this. Neither scandalizing nor humanizing, Hyde Park on Hudson avoids the apparent risk of intimacy. It settles soon enough into a lethargic holding pattern — perhaps intending to evoke the warm summer breezes whose virtues Daisy’s narration extols, or perhaps because it just can’t manage to go anywhere else.

With the date which will live in infamy still a couple of years away, our FDR prepares to receive King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), the newbie royals in search of pre-war support. This at least affords a sly few moments of aristocratic culture clash, and indeed the movie’s best scene: one sodden late-night pep talk from paralyzed president to stammering king. But it also suggests inattention or indifference to the initial established framework. What was to become of that poor open-hearted dullard Daisy? Did the movie get (understandably) bored and give up on its own main character?

Not exactly; in Nelson and Michell’s arrangement, it was Daisy who showed the monarch how best to mustard up his hot dog. The rest is history, of sorts. And some new deals are better than others.