Filmed in only 29 days on a comparatively small (for Hollywood) budget, Barry Levinson's Wag The Dog is the loosest, funniest, and sharpest film he's made since his brilliant debut, Diner. Working from a script by David Mamet and Hillary Henkin, Wag is the story of a brilliant spin doctor (Robert DeNiro) who's recruited by the president's chief aide (Anne Heche) to divert attention from a potential sex scandal involving the president and a teenage girl. His ingenious solution is to create a fake war to distract the public, for which he recruits a famed movie producer (Dustin Hoffman) to produce a trumped-up skirmish with Albania. Wag gets off to a rollicking start, with both Hoffman and DeNiro tearing into their roles with fervor. DeNiro imbues his tweedy, Machiavellian schemer with an understated menace, while Hoffman turns a character that could have easily descended into a familiar archetype (the oily, egomaniacal Hollywood producer) into a funny, dead-on caricature of a workaholic hopelessly in love with his own power to manufacture illusions. Things tend to fall apart toward the end, particularly during Woody Harrelson's ill-conceived, pointless cameo as a mentally ill convict who is paraded before the public as a lovable war hero, but for the most part, Wag The Dog is an oft-hilarious, witty, scathing satire that represents four gifted if uneven artists (De Niro, Hoffman, Levinson, and Mamet) at the top of their respective games.
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