Oliver Stone is quite possibly an insane man, but none of his movies have led me to think him an idiot - but what possible explanation for W. could there otherwise be? Released 94 days before George W. Bush's last day as President of the United States, it would have made sense for the notable liberal provocateur to present his film as a last "fuck you" to a president currently enjoying record-low approval ratings, indulging in a sneering catalogue of the man's failures in a Michael Moore-esque attempt to influence the election; certainly, I don't know that anybody expected much else when the project was announced. But whatever your political stripe, love Dubya or hate him, can you really argue that right now (or ever in the future), the world has a particular need for a routine biography, with virtually no editorial content either for or against the man?

Given the depths that Stanley Weiser's script mines, I can't imagine any American who couldn't have written W., which plays as nothing more than a Greatest Hits compendium of what pretty much everybody knows by now: the young Yalie's drunken fratboy days, getting bailed out by an indulgent but distant father throughout his early adulthood, meeting and courting librarian and ex-teacher Laura Welch, running oil companies and baseball teams into the ground, bender on his 40th birthday that directly led to his decision to seek a closer relationship to God and renounce alcohol, Texas governorship. This is all told in tandem with a close analysis of the days leading up to the March, 2003, execution of the Iraq War, primarily detailing how the administration dealt with the dodgy intelligence that suggested, very thinly, that Iraq was actively seeking Nigerian uranium. Not, mind you, that the administration didn't care and was just looking for any plausible excuse to launch a war; no, the director of JFK doesn't have the conspiracist guts to voice the widely-held belief that Bush and company deliberately lied their way into a war.

Notably absent is anything that might qualify as politically hot material. Thus, we never get to see Stone's take on Bush's "service" during Vietnam (a topic that theoretically should have held some appeal to the veteran who helmed Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July), except for a brief mention in one of Poppy's litanies of his son's failings. The matter of Bush's presidency is limited only to the time between the run-up to Iraq and the "Mission Accomplished" banner, meaning that such theoretically important topics as the still-contentious manner by which Bush won the 2000 election, the FISA wiretapping scandal, Hurricane Katrina, Gitmo, and "enhanced interrogation techniques" are either ignored completely or given nothing but a cameo appearance. The obvious rejoinder is that we're still living through those things; the rejoinder to the rejoinder is that W. exists nonetheless.

Once upon a time, Stone directed a very similar film, taking a man who was assuredly his political enemy, and telling the well-worn details of his life in a non-confrontational manner; but Nixon is not otherwise like W. at all. For all its flaws (the chief being a truly punishing running time), Nixon still has crazy energy to spare, from the madcap stylistic quirks that Stone pulls out of his ass to the narrative framework, fluidly swooping from one moment in Richard Nixon's life to the next without any consideration of what happened in what order. W. is a bog-standard biopic, on the model perfected by Ray and Walk the Line: an event late in life is given context by all the things a man did in his younger days, and everything that he ever did was driven from a single trauma. Although for W., that trauma was an ongoing event rather than a particular accidental brother-killing. Apparently, George W. Bush has never done anything except because he hates that his father liked Jeb better. That is the entirety of what W. has to say about the man often called the worst president ever - daddy issues. Is anything so damnable in the modern cinema as movies about daddy issues!

Stylistically, the film is regrettably lifeless, akin to World Trade Center in Stone's filmography and little else. Even at his very worst as a storyteller, there has historically always been something energizing about Stone's crazy cinematic flourishes to make for an interesting, if not a "great" movie (one might even suggest that the crazy flourishes are often the very reason that the movies cease to be great). Certainly, without the loopy cinematography and marvelous whimsies like presenting Angelina Jolie as a snake goddess, there would have been nothing remotely useful in Alexander. But W. looks every bit as typical as it reads. It cannot be an accident that the parts of the film which are most enjoyable to watch are also the only really unusual and weird parts of the film, as well as the ones where Stone lets his liberalism show the most. That's the combination that the whole film should have been; the highlight of the film, a dream sequence in which Dubya confronts Poppy in the Oval Office and they launch into fighting, is very much what I expected all 131 minutes to be. (Props also to the heavy-handed, but still weirdly charming, use of the theme song from the 1950s Adventures of Robin Hood TV show over a shot of Bush and his cabal of the wicked traipsing through the plains of Texas)

After that, the only thing about the film that's particularly engaging is watching the cast that Stone has put together, playing the likenesses of figures that still pop up on TV news, even as I type this. By and large, they are strong likenesses; Josh Brolin's take on Bush is very nearly the most eerily accurate I have ever seen, and Thandie Newton's Condoleeza Rice is perfect enough to call to mind a Disney animatronic - and frankly, just as creepy. The problem is that this is all mimicry, not performance, and while Brolin probably plays the film's underwritten fratboy stereotype as well as it deserves, I still don't feel like he's an actual person, just a machine for spouting tired malapropisms. The more interesting performances are mostly the ones that aren't perfect mimicry: especially Toby Jones as Karl Rove and James Cromwell as George H.W. Bush. Cromwell might actually be the single cast member who least resembles his real-life analogue, but damned if he doesn't make up for it by giving the film's only nuanced performance as a man who doesn't know how to show affection in general, and is absolutely lost when it comes to dealing with the chronic fuck-up who bears his name.

It's not quite right to call W. a wasted opportunity: that would suggest that the idea of a biopic of the sitting president had some value in the first place, which I strongly doubt. But even so, Stone's mishandling of a trite script is grueling to watch: no matter how overbearing the director's personality can be much of the time, it's not hard to wonder what W. might have looked like if the same Stone that directed Nixon was onboard this time, and sigh, with at least a little hint of regret, for the warped freak-out that might have been.