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Murray best part of 'Hyde Park on Hudson'

| Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

When did FDR have time to be president?

That's the question you come away with upon watching “Hyde Park on Hudson,” Roger Michell's film about Franklin D. Roosevelt's affairs, many of the amorous type, while staying at his mother's home in upstate New York.

Well, that's not the only question. The other is: Can Bill Murray play a convincing FDR? The answer to that question is much simpler: Yes.

This is one of the odder choices in an odd career, but one that Murray makes the most of. His Roosevelt is approachable, with a twinkle in his eye. Murray always brings a little of himself to his roles, sometimes a lot. Here it's just the right amount.

Yet his performance is not enough. There's an intriguing middle act when the king and queen of England come calling, hand out, for support against the Germans, knowing that war is inevitable. But this is bookended by the story of Daisy, played by the usually solid Laura Linney. Daisy is Roosevelt's distant cousin, dowdied up until she practically blends in with the wallpaper.

She lives at home with her mother. But in 1939, struggling against the Depression like everyone else, Daisy gets a call. The president, whom she has not seen in years, would like to see her. Upon arrival he shows her his stamp collection.

Thus begins what Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson portray as a romantic affair, one that includes a rather earthy scene set in Roosevelt's car in the middle of a field full of flowers. Kissing cousins? And then some.

Daisy is alarmed to learn that she is not alone among Roosevelt's special friends. Fine, whatever. Once you get past the shock value of Murray playing FDR and what goes on in the field, you worry that the movie will simply plod along, with that stamp collection rearing its head every so often.

But then the royals arrive. King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) pay the Roosevelts a visit, feeling both intimidated and superior, Elizabeth in particular. She is appalled that Eleanor Roosevelt (a fine Olivia Williams) plans to serve them hot dogs at a picnic, among other slights, real and imagined.

The gamesmanship between the royals and the Roosevelts is far superior to Daisy's story. It grows even stronger when, after a calamitous dinner, FDR and the king get down to brass tacks over drinks in the study. It's the single best moment in the film, as the stammering Bertie, as he's called (last played to great effect by Colin Firth in “The King's Speech”), reveals his insecurities and the fatherly Roosevelt reassures him.

It's touching. And fleeting. Soon we are back to Daisy's discomfort with not being the only woman in her famous cousin's life.

Somewhere beyond the fields the Depression rages in the United States and Germany threatens Europe. History tells us that Roosevelt did more than collect stamps and distant cousins during this time. Yet except for the scene with the king and president, in “Hyde Park on Hudson” you'd never know it. They're a fun bunch, these Roosevelts and their friends. But even in this crowd, fun's just not enough.

Bill Goodykoontz is a film critic for The Arizona Republic.

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