Hot Take: Like the subject, it might not have glitz or glamour but it wins you over through its workmanlike effort. Woody Harrelson as LBJ delivers an impressive performance.
Director Rob Reiner has tackled the story of Lyndon Baines Johnson and delivered a rather brisk, condensed but dexterous retelling of the Senate Majority leader’s rise to the Presidency obviously catapulted by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In LBJ, Reiner shows some of the same simplistic yet effective approaches to the subject and while the film is nowhere near some of his best films, it’s still a positive entry to his film resume. The best decision Reiner makes is in his casting of Woody Harrelson as Johnson. Under all of those prosthetics and makeup, Harrelson shines as LBJ and makes up for how basic the Joey Hartstone script is. It’s a mixed bag of star driven performance, competent directing and lackluster writing which makes LBJ a good not great retelling of the man who has the great burden of helping the country rebuild after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
The decision for brevity is an odd one. Typically, biopics such as LBJ have no qualms about clocking in at 2+ hours. At times, it feels like the 1 hour, 37 minute LBJ has a dinner to get to as it rushes through its subject matter. This minimizes the gravity of the film and occasionally makes it feel a little lighter than it should. Director Reiner is adept in keeping the film moving and showcasing the talents of a strong cast headlined by Harrelson as LBJ but also featuring Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lady Bird Johnson, Jeffrey Donovan as John F. Kennedy, C. Thomas Howell as Johnson aide Walter Jenkins, Richard Jenkins as Senator Richard Russell and Michael Stahl-David as Robert Kennedy. Bill Pullman is also in the film as Senator Ralph Yarborough but, honestly, his performance is weirdly unnerving as he looks like someone who just had a bad botox surgery and has now had a smile plastered on his face that he can’t seem to get rid of.
It’s Harrelson’s portrayal you come for though. He always adds a certain charm to his roles and this is the key to his portrayal of Johnson that gives it such high marks. At times, his turn as the eventual 37th President of the United States is a bit cartoonish but it could have something to do with the amount of makeup it took to get Harrelson to look more like Johnson than he actually does. Even with all of the makeup and the most prominent prosthetic movie ears since Spock, Harrelson pulls off the LBJ surface swagger and also lets down his guard behind closed doors in some of the softer scenes with Leigh in the role of Lady Bird. It’s a nice balance and what you’d expect from a Reiner film.
Admittedly, I’m a little worn out on films based on true events. LBJ marks 4 of the last 5 films reviewed that are fact based films albeit this story is a little larger than life on the surface. If it weren’t for Harrelson’s performance there’s a good chance I’d walk away from LBJ remembering very little of it. However, Harrelson carries the load here and makes LBJ a watchable biopic with enough nuance to keep it interesting even though at least half of the film’s storyline we’ve seen from at least some perspective at some point on the big screen. It’s not one of the best films of 2017 but it’s a good film and might even be good enough to garner some interest in Harrelson for a Best Actor nomination. Either way, if you’re a fan of these types of films, LBJ is worth a look.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Harrelson’s Transformation
Enough was said about his performance but Harrelson’s transformation is also impressive. While still recognizable under it all, Harrelson looks enough like Lyndon B. Johnson to sell the performance with his looks in addition to his acting chops.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- That Bill Pullman Role Though
In his last two roles, Pullman’s supporting performances have been more of a distraction than anything. First, it was in Battle of the Sexes as Jack Kramer and now as Senator Yarborough in LBJ. I’m not sure exactly what it is but in both films, his presence was ill-fitting the rest of the movie around him.