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Wednesday, December 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Overcast
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The Manchurian Candidate

While the Democratic delegates pack their bags and head back home, The Manchurian Candidate is slipping into theaters across the country, not quite under the cover of darkness but stealthily, as if we'll be receiving information on a need-to-know basis. Directed by The Silence of the Lambs' Jonathan Demme, this remake of the 1962 political thriller about a vast conspiracy to plant a mole inside the Oval Office has a fresh new set of villains. No longer are the Commies, both here and abroad, pulling strings that the rest of us don't even know exist. Now it's a private equity fund we're worried about. Man churian Global is Michael Moore's worst nightmare, a corporation that will stop at nothing in its quest to own, and therefore run, the world. But why buy a presidential election when you can simply install your own candidate, his skull implanted with a computer chip that's programmed him to do your bidding?

The anonymous faces behind Manchurian Global mostly lurk in the shadows. It's the politicos who take center stage, the politicos and Denzel Washington's Major Bennett Marco, a Gulf War veteran who's been having these strange dreams that seem related to the time his platoon was ambushed in Kuwait. Also in the platoon was Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), a mama's boy whose mama happens to be a powerful U.S. senator (Meryl Streep) who would prefer to be even more powerful. For rescuing his fellow soldiers, Shaw won the Medal of Honor and, with a little help from his mother, a spot on the national ticket. But what about those dreams? Checking around, Marco discovers he's not the only one having them. Maybe the squad wasn't taken prisoner. Maybe it was kidnapped, tortured, brainwashed and implanted with computer chips. Maybe Shaw was supposed to win the Medal of Honor.

Opening a year before the Kennedy assassination, the original Manchurian Candidate was a highly unstable blend of paranoia and camp, thriller and satire, but the volatility, the Strangelovian loopiness, was part of its charm. Watching it, you weren't sure whether to laugh or cry, which is how a lot of people felt as the Cold War got hotter and hotter. Demme may have been after a similar effect -- to capture the country's mood right now -- but, if so, I'd say he's missed the mark. His Manchurian Candidate is dark and murky, as if the whole thing were taking place in one of Marco's dreams. Especially early on, Demme works hard to give the scenes a charge. We're bombarded with music, and the actors' faces are shown in such extreme close-up that we can practically read their minds. But where has that Strangelovian loopiness gone? Why project a vast conspiracy if you're not going to have some fun with it?

As a fire-breathing dragon lady, Streep tries to have fun, but the script lets her down, isn't half as smart as she is. She's also -- and I hadn't realized this was even possible -- slightly miscast, her voice too smooth and soothing. Glenn Close is the right woman to play the Cruella DeVil of national politics. Streep, desperate to wield power in a convincing way, holds nothing in reserve, and that leaves her no place to go. The movie does the same thing, hits a high pitch early on and refuses to come down. It wants that ink-still-wet, tomorrow's-headlines immediacy that Moore got with Fahrenheit 9/11. For what is Manchurian Global if not the Carlyle Group, which Moore turned into Exhibit A in his case against the Bush family? The difference is that Moore kept both his head and his sense of humor, whereas Demme loses both. A private equity fund named for a region of China? And you don't play that for a joke? Or at least explain it?

The joke may be on us.

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