"WAG THE DOG" is such a crisply delivered political satire, so packed full of wickedly amusing details and expertly modulated performances and with its heart so obviously in the right place that I really, truly wish I could tell you it was also a good movie. Instead, it's more like an exceptionally strong "Saturday Night Live" sketch stretched to two hours, with predictable consequences. The joke -- and there really is just one -- starts wearing thin; the plot, thrashing about in its death throes, seizes on one implausible coincidence after another; and, perhaps worst of all, the movie starts to believe it has Something to Say.
In terms of getting entertainment value for your eight bucks, however, none of these flaws is fatal. For most of its length the movie whips along at a remarkable clip -- maybe the normally languid and sentimental Barry Levinson ("Diner," "Avalon") has absorbed some ideas about pacing from his TV show, "Homicide: Life on the Streets" -- reveling in its own outrageousness the whole time. We begin in a bunkerlike underground "war room" 10 days before a presidential election as the incumbent's assembled strategists learn that a teenage girl is alleging that the president molested her during her Firefly group's tour of the White House. (Can't imagine where they got an idea like that, can you?) Nobody at the meeting cares about the girl or what happened to her, of course. The only issue is how to keep the story off the front page until after Election Day.
Presidential aide Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) has an ace up her sleeve: a rumpled, professorial free-agent spin doctor named Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro). Principally famous as Ellen DeGeneres' oft-photogged galpal, Heche turns out to be a gawkily attractive screen presence. Wide-eyed, leggy and always in motion, she's an appealing blend of '90s workaholic professional and '50s ditzy comedienne. As for De Niro, he doesn't steal any scenes, but Conrad is one of his most measured creations in recent years. We instinctively want to see Conrad -- beneath his tweedy growl, his bow ties, his beard-shrouded smile -- as a good-hearted and supremely intelligent man. It takes quite an effort to remind yourself, as the story progresses, that Conrad has demonstrated a limitless contempt for the American people, that his intelligence has been turned toward a pragmatic form of fascism.
When someone observes that the only thing that could blow away the Firefly scandal is a war, Conrad shrugs benignly. After all, he's not proposing that the president -- a character who scarcely appears in the movie -- actually go to war and get people killed, just that he pretend to. His idea is to invent a phony nuclear crisis in Albania and a nonexistent high-tech warplane, and then stage a fictitious U.S. armed intervention, to be tidily resolved right after the election. "Why Albania?" Winifred asks. Conrad shrugs again. "They seem shifty, standoffish -- what did they ever do for us?"
Conrad enlists the aid of Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), a blow-dried, indoor-tanned lizard who drifts around with the vague, vainglorious air of a tremendously successful man who feels unappreciated. It's here that "Wag the Dog" kicks into its loopiest high gear. While Conrad plies the media with judicious leaks and overly emphatic denials, Stanley assembles a sort of high-concept SWAT team in his Malibu mansion to concoct the details of the Albanian war: a black-clad trend-spotter called Fad King (Denis Leary), who keeps insisting that Italy would make a hipper adversary; a composer (Willie Nelson) to create a hilariously believable "We Are the World"-style theme song; even a costume designer (Second City vet Andrea Martin).
Watching De Niro and Hoffman (whose only previous screen appearance together was a brief scene in Levinson's "Sleepers") navigate the jagged crackle of Hilary Henkin and David Mamet's screenplay is so much fun that you might not notice that the story starts to run on fumes shortly after Stanley's fake newsreel of a frightened village girl rescuing her cat wins the public's heart. When "Wag the Dog" works, it's because its satirical points don't require underlining: Americans are incredibly ignorant about remote reaches of the world; the media have lost their zeal for genuine investigation and will suck up whatever crumbs are dropped from the palace gates; we're addicted to images of conflict, from tragic spectacle (Sarajevo) to video game (the Gulf War).
But by the time the president's opponent (Craig T. Nelson, appearing only in video clips) cuts a deal with the CIA to declare the non-war over and Woody Harrelson appears briefly as a psychopathic prison inmate drafted to impersonate a rescued POW, we're heading for an overwrought allegorical conclusion, packed with weighty lessons about the madness of it all. "Wag the Dog" is probably Levinson's least maudlin and most enjoyable movie since he left his Baltimore childhood behind after "Avalon," but he still needs to learn that satire and civics lesson make an uncomfortable mix. As masters of the form from Shakespeare to Jerry Seinfeld have demonstrated, comedy is most effective -- and, paradoxically, most serious -- when it refuses to lecture its audience or violate the laws of its own nonsensical universe.