How could any film honestly dealing with the life of Gary Hart not be called Monkey Business? Even if there were already several other films about him titled Monkey Business, that would be no excuse. As Chappaquiddick is to Kennedy, Monkey Business is and always will be to Hart.
That these filmmakers chose to call this movie The Front Runner set me up to viewing it skeptically. They must be Gary Hart apologists, I thought. And it does seem that way as the film bends credulity in trying to have you somehow sympathize with a man who after becoming the lead candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1987, decided to charter a boat, Monkey Business, for a week long trip to Bimini. Here he openly has an affair with one Donna Rice. It comes at a point in American culture when suddenly the private lives of public figures like politicians were fair game for the traditional press. This could be due to the rise of cable TV, the 24 hour news cycle, the perception that the tabloid press was becoming more mainstream, all of the above and perhaps even other factors. The point being that Gary Hart flaunted his indiscretion and simply shrugged it off.
After his affair is revealed, Hart doesn’t get the implications and completes several tone deaf moves like arguing with the editor of the paper that exposed him at the podium of what was ostensibly an economic forum and coming up flat in his response to a press conference question, “Have you ever cheated on your wife?” Defining moments for his candidacy.
The film is especially annoying in that you are supposed to somehow feel that Hart is an anti-hero who is trying to protect all of our privacy rights. When in the end it is Hart who is calling for the spotlight on himself. At one point daring the press to follow him. So what did he expect and what are we left to think about him and his sense of judgement and character?
There is one great opening shot, a fantastic oner that floats around an on-location TV broadcast outside Hart’s hotel and captures the milieu around a presidential race. Otherwise, the film generally clunks along cinematically. If you are a political wonk, or get into films where people take shots at each other while doing logistics and PR around a table, some of this film might work for you. Or maybe you are a history buff and are simply curious about this episode in American political and pop culture. Okay, I can see that. But otherwise this film doesn’t do anyone justice and is the visual equivalent of stubbing your toe.
Even the casting is way off here as Gary Hart was never so buff and Hugh Jackman seems like he is about to sprout Wolverine’s metallic fangs at any moment and gouge a few reporters. Instead of maybe taking his foot off the protein powder pedal and transforming more into the actual physique of the character, Jackman doubles down including a moment where Gary Hart is doing push-ups at a meeting. It’s laughable, in the worst way. Instead of watching Monkey Business, why not toss a few National Enquirer copies on the yule log this holiday and fire up Three Days of the Condor?