Picks and Pans Review: True Colors

updated 03/25/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/25/1991 01:00AM

John Cusack, James Spader

Anyone who's cynical about the probity of our elected representatives in Washington might think this film—about a brutally ambitious, corrupt young congressional candidate—sounds like more fun than a barrel of pork.

But it comes off as so naive and uninstructive that it might have been called All the King's Little Boys.

Cusack and Spader, two of the more resourceful actors around, play University of Virginia law school roommates. Cusack drops out to work as an aide to a U.S. Senator, played by Richard Widmark. Spader graduates and goes to work in the Justice Department, prosecuting miscreant politicians. By the end, Cusack is running for a House seat from Connecticut, using campaign money handed over in all-too-obvious fashion by Mob-affiliated real estate developer Mandy Patinkin.

What keeps all this from bearing much weight is that director Herbert (My Blue Heaven) Ross and writer Kevin (Working Girl) Wade seem to think corrupt politicians are always not only unscrupulous and greedy but cosmically stupid. In fact they treat almost everyone as if they're cosmically stupid. Spader remains Cusack's devoted friend long after it's clear what a manipulator he is. Spader even forgives Cusack for stealing his intended bride. Imogen (Erik the Viking) Stubbs—Widmark's daughter—and she later forgives Cusack for double-crossing Spader.

(The Fraternal Order of Police may want to take note of the implicit disdain in Spader's response when Stubbs accuses him of not being sufficiently ambitious: "I'm going to be a lawyer, not a cop.")

Meanwhile, Cusack is clawing his way to the top over a series of helpless political hacks and officeholders.

Wade's script gives lip service to a jaded attitude: "Only two things can really wreck a man's political career—being caught with a live boy or a dead girl." "You got that backwards. First, you go to law school. Then you become a total sleazebag." And there's Cusack's creed: "Don't get caught."

Yet whatever insights the film harbors are painted over in the broad-brush depiction of characters who are either thoroughly good or totally evil.

Spader handles his too-noble-to-be-true character with some poise. Stubbs, Widmark and especially Patinkin rise above the situation.

Cusack is too twitchy and obviously guilt-ridden, perhaps because he is so unsubtle as to have accepted a luxurious new home—free—from Patinkin. Cusack isn't walking a fine line so much as leaping into a chasm labeled "Sharp Pointed Rocks, Venomous Serpents and a Crew from 60 Minutes Below."

Brad Sullivan, as Spader's Justice Department boss, is obtrusively awkward, like someone doing a very squinty, very bad Bogart imitation.

For the most part, though, it's the design that's the problem, not the execution. While it's hard to believe that in the era of Watergate. Bert Lance, Abscam and the S&L scandals, any kind of political corruption could be made to appear too outlandish or any politician too dumb, Ross and Wade succeed in doing just that. (R)

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