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MOVIE REVIEW

Sayles loses focus in formulaic 'Silver City'

One of the great satirical portraits of a sitting president is on display in John Sayles' new film "Silver City." Chris Cooper doesn't play anyone named Bush, nor does the character even hold national office, but his Dickie Pilager (say it out loud) is a creation to make anyone remotely wary of George W. weep with laughter, or perhaps the other way around.

Dickie, a Colorado gubernatorial candidate and the wastrel son of a powerful ex-US senator (played by Michael Murphy, himself the onetime presidential candidate of Robert Altman's "Tanner '88"), is an amiable twit thrust into the public sector so his father's cronies can hold on to power. When his handlers are around, Dickie -- currently a vice president at the Bentel Corporation -- gives perfectly decent sound bite. Without that safety net, he's incapable of putting a sentence together. An impromptu press conference on the steps of the Capitol quickly devolves into a farce of discombobulated boilerplate, and reporters can only stand there marveling at such exhortations as "If you do the crime, you got to, uh. . . be prepared to take your lumps."

Dickie's a distressing and extremely funny conception, but if there's one thing Sayles has proved he's not gifted at over his long, respected career, it's comedy. And so "Silver City" keeps shoving Dickie to the sidelines in favor of a more standard-issue Sayles formula: the earnest multi-character drama that explores a locale, a mindset, and a set of social ills. The director did it first in "City of Hope" (1991), did it best in "Lone Star" (1996), and did it again in "Sunshine State" (2002). With "City," returns are diminishing.

The problem is that the film's main character is not Dickie but Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston), a failed journalist, current private investigator, and colorless lead character. Danny's called on by Pilager campaign manager Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss, looking positively Ailesian) to poke around the discovery of a water-logged corpse during the filming of a Pilager TV ad. Raven just wants Danny to warn off a handful of family "enemies" who may be out to embarrass Dickie; Danny, of course, wants to get to the bottom of the matter. In the process, he uncovers migrant abuse, environmental disaster, and corporate malfeasance, and at the top of the pyramid sits the omnipotent head of Bentel, Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson).

"Chinatown" this ain't, no matter that Huston is the son of the late actor-director John Huston. There's a lot of free-floating outrage in "Silver City" -- Sayles reportedly worked hard to get the film out before the election -- and the darts hit members of the media (Maria Bello as Danny's journalist ex-girlfriend) who are literally in bed with lobbyists (Billy Zane), developers (David Clennon) who are literally in bed with planning commissioners (Mary Kay Place), right-wing radio nuts (Miguel Ferrer), and left-wing bloggers (Tim Roth). The only character who doesn't feel like a point on a position paper is Dickie's sister Maddy (Daryl Hannah), a rich-kid hippie burnout who shoots a crossbow at Danny and later carts him off to bed.

It's a milling crowd, and after a while they start to cancel each other out. Sayles doesn't have the cynicism for the modern film noir he thinks he's making, and anger just brings out his didactic side. Such a shame: If he'd let Cooper go to town, "Silver City" might last beyond its mayfly political moment. As it is, the movie only shudders to life when Dickie Pilager's onscreen: a figure so swaddled in privilege that thinking only gets in the way.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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