To watch Rob Reiner’s “LBJ” is to spend an hour and a half watching Woody Harrelson battle his miscasting, and occasionally win. And as the movie goes along, his win-loss record improves....
For all the advance reports of how Harrelson is unrecognizable in the role, he’s pretty recognizable, especially in the early scenes. As LBJ becomes President Johnson and the character ages, Harrelson seems to sink more into looking like him, which is a testament to his performance (and to the makeup department that gives him the age spots and lantern jaw that almost make him look like the 36th president).
You never forget you’re hearing that Woody voice, though, and at 5 foot 10, Harrelson doesn’t tower over, say, Johnson’s bete noire Robert F. Kennedy the way the real-life 6-foot-4 LBJ would have.
Yet Harrelson works hard to overcome these deficits, with an energetic and impassioned performance that delves into both LBJ’s crude side and into his adeptness at swaying both sides of the aisle to come around to his side. Harrelson doesn’t pull it off as well as Bryan Cranston did in the LBJ play and movie “All the Way” (and Cranston also lacked the height requirement), but considering the obstacles, Harrelson is a lot better than you might expect.
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Unfortunately, the first hour of the relatively brief “LBJ” plays less like a feature film than like a TV-movie — and as a TV-movie, “All the Way” was better.
The movie jumps around in time, with its focal point being President Kennedy’s assassination: Flashbacks take us back to before the 1960 presidental race, when Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan of TV’s “Burn Notice”) and LBJ were political foes, and to JFK’s eventual decision to enlist him as his running mate and vice president, much to the consternation of brother Bobby (Michael Stahl-David), who treats Johnson with the expected continual condescension. But then, almost everyone in JFK’s orbit underestimates Johnson as a rube.
So many people have played the Kennedys (even another Donovan, Martin, who’s no relation to Jeffrey) that it’s practically a thankless job to start speaking in their familiar Boston accents. Donovan does OK with it, but he plays the calmer of the brothers; Stahl-David’s accent comes and goes, and the more excited Bobby gets, the less Bobby he sounds. Jennifer Jason Leigh is good as Lady Bird Johnson, although Joey Hartstone’s screenplay doesn’t give the character a lot to do.
It’s in the movie’s last third, when Johnson becomes president under familiarly tragic circumstances, that the movie begins to have the same life as Harrelson’s performance. As LBJ works to get key civil-rights legislation approved, the editing picks up speed and the movie’s pacing improves.
But Reiner doesn’t do much to heighten the drama of an already-familiar story; this is a rare case of a movie that feels like it should have been longer, if only to give it more dramatic depth.
If you look at Reiner’s filmography, you have to wonder what happened to the director who had a string of commercially successful and critically respected films (1994’s misfire “North” notwithstanding) for about a dozen years, starting with 1984’s “This Is Spinal Tap” through 1996’s “Ghosts of Mississippi.” Since then, his output has been pretty uneven.
“LBJ” seems like it could have been a prestige project for him, but too often, it feels like he’s not trying hard enough. Harrelson manages to transcend his limitations, but Reiner seems to be imposing them on himself.
Director: Rob Reiner
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Stahl-David
Rated: R (strong language)
Running time: 98 min.