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Silver City plants a shrub where it wants to dig up a Bush

Silver City is being marketed as a biting, bitter send-up of George W. Bush. Hence the copious use of trailer footage in which Chris Cooper, as Colorado gubernatorial candidate Dickie Pilager, stumbles over simple sentences, dodges reporters' questions with mindless macho explications ("My message to the criminals is this: You straighten up or get out"), and wears his vapid grin like a pair of clown shoes. But it's hard to parody a man who so capably provides his own punch lines. Nothing John Sayles conjures could ever rival Bush's statement last month that America's enemies "never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we." The man, as Stephen Colbert pointed out on a recent Daily Show With Jon Stewart, has always had an uncomfortable relationship with words.

Sayles, a maker of resonant historical dramas (Matewan, Eight Men Out) and complex social satires (Sunshine State, City of Hope), has chosen an easy target and missed his mark. Dickie disappears from Silver City early on, after Sayles wears out the obvious joke, and what we're left with in the second half is a half-baked, anticlimactic thriller involving a corpse floating in a lake, toxic chemicals stored in a mine shaft, illegal-immigrant workers, and about a dozen or more corporate goons and various other thugs out to . . . out to . . . well, out to do something, though Sayles himself doesn't seem to have much of an idea just what that something is.

Using pristine Colorado scenery as his backdrop -- scenery about to be, ahem, pillaged by a real estate mogul (David Clennon) and his lobbyist, played by Billy Zane -- Sayles attempts to indict Bush's lousy environmental record. Specifically, he's going after the president's allowing the corporate Superfund taxes to expire, rolling back environmental restrictions on the mining industry, and calling for oil drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. (Sounds like the stuff of scintillating cinema, eh?) But Sayles muddies the issue by throwing in a romance, a murder, and so much talk of conspiracies it drowns out the message. Which is?

Tongue tied: Chris Cooper fails to fill Dubya's boots in Silver City.
Tongue tied: Chris Cooper fails to fill Dubya's boots in Silver City.

With some 30 speaking parts, including 15 famous faces ranging from Kris Kristofferson as a media mogul who considers Dickie his own "treasure chest" to Richard Dreyfuss as Dickie's Karl Rove-like pit-bull adviser to Daryl Hannah as Dickie's stoned-out, bow-and-arrow-slinging sister, the movie's less a narrative than a Tower of Babel.

Also joining the party are Danny Huston, son of Chinatown baddie John Huston, as a disgraced journalist turned private eye hired by Dreyfuss to investigate Dickie's would-be enemies; Maria Bello as a reporter and Huston's former lover; Michael Murphy as a senator and Dickie's powerful brother; Miguel Ferrer as a right-wing radio host; and Tim Roth as the suspicious editor of a political webzine. Listening to them chatter about greed and corruption is like surfing the Internet and landing on a message board populated only by the paranoid and panicked.

Silver City's attempts at satire and excursions into thriller never mesh; the two disparate elements never shake hands, much less lock you in their embrace. Sayles seems to have no idea what the movie's about, what agenda he's trying to serve: Is this a comedic Chinatown, a noirish The Candidate, or just some extended Saturday Night Live sketch that goes on far longer than it should?

Cooper plays Pilager as an empty head containing blank eyes; he doesn't possess a whit of the charisma that made Bush a contender when his detractors wrote him off as a pretender during the Texas gubernatorial race. Bush may be a lot of things to the people who loathe him most -- bumbler, liar, puppet, fraud -- but at least he projects a frat boy's confidence, even when tripping over grade-school phrases. Dickie, when talking about such issues as capital punishment or the environment, appears completely bereft of conviction or even emotion; he's more automaton than human, a marionette incapable of jack squat unless his handlers are there to feed him his next line or sentiment. Will Ferrell, playing Bush in a faux ad on the Web site www.whitehousewest.com, does a far better job of portraying the president's rare, hypnotic combination of swagger and dimwittedness.

Sayles has never been much for technique; most of his movies look as though they were shot by a cinematographer with one eye taking orders from someone without any sight at all. But where they're terrible to look at, they're usually engaging enough to listen to and think about and chew on; if only Sayles were making movies for radio broadcast. But Silver City feels particularly amateurish and heavy-handed, as though it's a lousy joke being told by someone who forgot not only the punch line but the joke itself. He rambles 'til he hits upon the occasional point of interest, but digresses again 'til he's completely lost you and whatever point he was trying to make. Silver City serves as agitprop more likely to irritate than agitate. It wears out its welcome well before its halfway point, by which time you're either so tangled up in plot points you're strangling, or so bored you just wish you were being strangled.

 
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