At the beginning of the classic “All About Eve,” bright-eyed Eve Harrington gushes about wanting to see any play that featured Broadway star Margo Channing. Retorts one character, “I doubt very much that you’d like her in ‘The Hairy Ape.’” And so it is that even the most talented performers need to be mindful of their limitations and boundaries.
Reminding us that not every movie star is right for every movie is “Charlie Wilson’s War,” which stars Tom Hanks as a boozy, lustful Texas good-ol’-boy and Julia Roberts as an iron-willed, lusty, fundamentalist Christian, aging Houston debutante. And as if that casting didn’t already place the movie in choppy waters, the film is a dark-hearted political farce directed by Mike Nichols, who should have been scared away from Washington, D.C. and the military by “Heartburn” and “Catch-22,” respectively. The film tells a true story, but the inconvenient truth that the people played by Hanks and Roberts are still living has no doubt removed whatever bite Nichols might have felt like providing.
Charlie Wilson (Hanks) is a hard-partying but otherwise unremarkable Texas representative who finds himself moved by the plight of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan after the Soviets invaded the country in 1979. The U.S., of course, couldn’t overtly aid the Afghans without kicking the Cold War up a notch, but Wilson and gajillionairess Joanne Herring (Roberts) managed to mastermind a stealthy trickle of arms to the Afghans with the assistance of Israel, Egypt and Pakistan. Providing useful advice in all this is Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a brusque CIA policy wonk whose know-how mixes perfectly with Wilson’s glad-handing to get the job done.
There’s a potential for wicked satire here — particularly since a line can easily be drawn from the U.S. support for those Afghan rebels to Al Qaeda and 9/11 — but Nichols would rather show us Hanks slapping his secretaries’ fannies while Robert sports a truly awful wig and an even worse Texas accent.
Hoffman, once again, does what he can to fireman’s-carry the movie to safety, imbuing his scenes with trenchant wit and providing enough chemistry to make the badly used Hanks and Roberts dazzle in their scenes opposite him. Hoffman’s the tide that raises all barges — don’t be surprised if Hollywood rewards him for his exceptional work in the indies “The Savages” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” by giving him an Academy Award nomination for this big-studio trifle.
Speaking of which, you can feel the “Oscar clip” importance all over the big scene where Hanks visits a refugee camp and sees firsthand the horrors of the Russian invasion. But the moment sort of lies there — anyone who’s seen, say, Michael Winterbottom’s “Welcome to Sarajevo” or even one of those late-night “Save the Children” TV spots has seen much more gut-punching stuff.
Audiences can buy Tom Hanks on a desert island talking to a volleyball. But in a Las Vegas hot tub, chatting up strippers with a Tay-exx-us drawl? Not so much.