Lyndon Baines Johnson has been a hot commodity of late in the entertainment world.
Liev Schreiber took a stab at portraying the 36th president in the 2013 film "Lee Daniels' The Butler." In 2014, Tom Wilkinson, as LBJ, joined forces with Danny Oyelowo's Martin Luther King Jr. in "Selma." Last year brought a bumper crop, with John Carroll Lynch (in "Jackie") and Bryan Cranston (in HBO's "All the Way," based on the stage play) portraying versions of the late commander in chief. Each portrait had its up side.
But I suspect none of these actors had as much fun bringing to life the cagey, colorful political vulgarian as fellow Texan Woody Harrelson seems to be having in "LBJ," crudely and rudely drawling his lines behind a wall of latex makeup, plus-size prosthetic ears and horn-rimmed glasses that obscure his own facial features.
It's a kick to watch Harrelson's blustery good ol' boy threaten to take a hatchet to one underling's male member after the aide fails to deliver an exact vote count on a bill. Yet director Rob Reiner keeps the movie reined in.
The result feels like an installment of a 1980s miniseries that's been preserved in amber rather than a complete and fulfilling production. As "LBJ" tells it, in a screenplay by Joey Hartstone, John F. Kennedy brought sex appeal to the ticket, while LBJ provided experience in the trenches. Together, this odd couple fought to deliver a progressive agenda that initially pivoted around what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But suddenly after JFK's assassination, LBJ had to fly solo and steady a grieving nation.
Buttressed by a sly, low-key performance by Jeffrey Donovan as JFK - who rejected the distrust of Johnson by his attorney general and brother Bobby (Michael Stahl-David) - Hartstone's story suggests this political alliance was the start of a mighty partnership that ended too soon.
If "LBJ" feels stunted as a film, it compensates with some fine acting: Jennifer Jason Leigh, sporting a bouffant hairdo, transforms herself into Johnson's supportive wife, Lady Bird. And the ever-reliable Richard Jenkins is a standout in the role of Johnson's N-word-spouting friend, Georgia's U.S. Sen. Richard Russell Jr., whom the president tries to nudge toward enlightenment.