18 February 2016 | pyrocitor
Donald Trump didn't coin the phrase "There's no such thing as bad publicity," but he may as well have (and he might even take credit for it anyway). For a titanic media figure whose image was already virtually predicated on self-satire (even before his recent bid for presidency), Trump's belligerent braying has courted many a satire in his time, but few that have made much of an incisive mark. If anything, the glut of recent Trump riffing, from SNL to Jimmy Fallon, have more than likely backfired in their riffing intent, and only served to further bolster the outrageous silliness of Trump's media personality, rather than drawing much- needed attention to the many problematic aspects of his campaign. As James Poniewozik from the New York Times mused, "How do you spoof a candidate who treats campaigning like a roast?"
This is the major sticking point with Funny or Die's 'Donald Trump's the Art of the Deal: The Movie'. On paper, a fantastic idea - Ron Howard introduces a videocassette of Trump's (fictional) '80s-set informercial-turned-TV-movie, lost in "the Cybill Shepherd blouse fire of 1989" (one of the film's choicest one-liners) - the film plays as an overlong skit which flounders due to not being terribly funny, and crucially lacking in any particularly percipient satire. Is it amusing? Yes, for the most part, but fairly blandly so. With an unfocused sense of humour broadly skewing for everything from Citizen Kane gags (thank goodness for Patton Oswald and his cinema-literacy) to occasional pokes at the fourth wall (some more successful than others, though one mid-film "re-casting" bit is a winner), to toilet humour, preciously few bits raise more than a faint smile. Oddly enough, where the film really excels is as an '80s pastiche, with its washed out VHS fuzziness, corny montages, and chirpy, gratuitous child lead(s) acing the tropes enough to make John Hughes proud. There's even a Kenny Loggins theme tune, bless 'em.
Of course, the film's main bid for attention is its 'who woulda thunk it?' stunt casting of Johnny Depp as Trump - and, yes, it's as much of a rollicking success as you've heard. With the aid of some impressive prosthetics and a mighty hairpiece, Depp nails Trump's fidgety physicality and distinctive Queens bellow. However, he's also wise enough to dig beneath mere mimicry, finding notes of preening sinisterness and occasional desperation, entirely devoid of empathy, all coalescing into a performance that feels entirely human, and all the more unsettling for it. The gaggle of guest stars are also generally good for a laugh - Oswald, transposing his characteristic neurotic schlub into a Miami Vice villain is a scream, while Alfred Molina tirelessly fishes for peanut gallery one-liners as Trump's seedy "Jewish lawyer." Even if most of the cast are invited to retool their best bits from other work, they're all still on top form - Jack McBrayer revisiting his bubbly, hollow- eyed imp from 30 Rock, Henry Winkler his blustery hypocrite from Arrested Development, while Robert Morse gets one more adorable 'top of the ladder' yuk, and there's a Christopher Lloyd cameo so stupendous I won't spoil it here. Still, it's a shame such a superb ensemble isn't given more to do than be fairly repetitively roasted by Depp's Trump, believable as it may be.
'Believable,' ultimately, is the sadly operative word. If Funny or Die's intent was to defame Trump's image midway through the primaries, it's a bit of a redundant effort: such an unfortunately gentle satire is hardly news for Trump-opposition, while those firmly on Team Trump are unlikely be shaken by any of Depp's mugging, excellent as he is. Call it the Wolf of Wall Street effect (though The Art of the Deal is a far feebler effort): the artistic intent is to present Trump's misdemeanours at barely exaggerated face value, intending them to speak for themselves as inherently absurd and satirical. However, due to Trump's cult of personality, those already swayed by him are all too likely to reppropriate the joke as sincere, making it a bit of a disappointingly apolitical backfire of a political satire. Ultimately, Funny or Die's The Art of the Deal means well, but it's lazy, highly produced, and lacking in cohesion and teeth, muddying its point in a bunch of loud, airy bluster counterbalanced with infectious enough buffoonery to ride out in spite of itself. In short, it's everything Donald Trump would love.