If you ever wanted to hear Lyndon Johnson (portrayed here by Woody Harrelson) discuss the hang of his testes, Rob Reiner’s LBJ is the film for you. The subject comes up twice, showing up again near the end as if it is a brilliant comedic callback meant to elicit hoots and hollers.
I was surprised to hear, two days before the film’s release, that there was a Harrelson-starring biopic about President Johnson. I was more surprised to find out that it was a Rob Reiner film. I was not surprised to find that this hidden film, which for all I know had no marketing budget, was simply no good.
Reiner hasn’t made a notable film in some time, but he still knows what he is doing. LBJ is not a poorly directed film. There is the curious habit for scenes to be lit in rooms that have no lights on. Seriously, no one in Washington works with lamps on, it seems.
Still, the film functions just fine on a technical level. It is the story that fails to conjure up entertainment value.
Harrelson does conjure up a strong performance. Although in some lighting the prosthetic work on his face doesn’t raise to a similar level of acting. Michael Stahl-David also does a fine job as Robert F. Kennedy. The rest of the cast, though, just make up a bunch of suits with faces.
Most of the film is stiff and rote, detailing Johnson’s work as Vice President in the Kennedy administration and him taking up the mantle of the presidency following Kennedy’s assassination. There is no originality in structure or scripting in this matter. Indeed, most of the lines out of Johnson’s mouth are blatant platitudes that make me question whether this film was first drafted as a parody.
At first, it appears like LBJ may be attempting something noteworthy by not being overly reverential toward its subject. The candor of the portrayal of Johnson makes him seem standoffish, and it becomes clear that he may have been noble merely for the sake of not appearing ill-equipped for his job.
But, no, the film wraps up by painting Johnson as another pinnacle of American history. Politics aside, this portrayal is dull and conventional, leaving us with very little in terms of takeaway value. Which means, I guess, that candor in Johnson’s dialogue was merely meant to be the film’s sense of humor. I can’t say it is particularly funny (you can refer back to this review’s inaugural paragraph if you want a taste of what kind of humor is in store with the film).
LBJ was swept under the rug for a reason. It won’t stick with you. Maybe it will tickle you or get your patriotic strings plucking, if the political biopic as a genre intrigues you. Otherwise, it is more likely to bore you as it plods through scene after scene of politicians in dark rooms whispering about things that we already know will come to pass.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)