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'The Regime' review: 'Veep' meets 'Succession,' but make it a European dictatorship

Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

“The Regime,” starring Kate Winslet, is HBO’s latest prestige series and it never goes deeper than its elevator pitch: “Veep” meets “Succession,” but set inside an authoritarian government.

Those inspirations are literal. Creator Will Tracy might be better known as the co-writer of 2022’s “The Menu” but his credits also include “Succession,” and executive producer Frank Rich is a “Veep” alum. But do we really need another darkly humorous portrayal of the power-mad and their humanizing dysfunctions?

Winslet plays the ridiculous and floridly paranoid dictator of an unnamed Central European republic. She somehow seized power despite her many deficiencies and psychological instabilities, some of which stem from a dead father who lies embalmed and on display in a glass coffin. During one of her regular visits to his crypt, she flops down a bouquet of flowers: “Here, these are dead, you’re dead, lots in common, much to discuss.”

She is a grandiose narcissist surrounded by opportunistic political appointees (plus her husband) forever manipulating her to their own goals. “Our Lady of the Shrinking GDP,” one of them dubs her, as the economy spirals down the toilet.

She is also hypochondriac (if you believe worries about toxic mold qualify as hypochondria) and her obsessions subside only after a soldier (Matthias Schoenaerts) joins her inner circle. He’s a rough-hewn type from the countryside who convinces her that folk remedies will do the trick, and she takes the bait. Is he a Rasputin-like figure? The show can’t make up its mind. He claims to be a man of the people — who also shot and killed striking workers, which is why everyone calls him “The Butcher.” Hypocrisy can be a fascinating character trait but he’s given no motivation, no point of view, no political anything. What does he believe?

His presence is the catalyst that sends the chancellor over the edge in a frenzy of lust, egotism and policy screw-ups, inciting famine and a civil war. Don’t bother wondering what the country’s population thinks of all this. “The Regime” certainly doesn’t. Everyday people are abstractions.

 

Narratively and thematically incoherent, “The Regime” offers no one to root for. That’s fine. But it’s hard to feel any investment in the outcome. There’s some middling critique of the U.S. and its paternalistic approach to geopolitical diplomacy, but it lacks the guts to get real jabs in. Over its six episodes, the show has the energy of a comedy without much actual comedy. When a moment lands, it’s almost despite itself — or coasting on the fumes of pastiche. Winslet‘s chancellor takes the stage at a state dinner to sing an off-key version of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” while her husband accompanies her on the keyboard, and it plays like a recycled mashup of Kendall Roy rapping at his father’s birthday on “Succession” and that old “Saturday Night Live” sketch with Ana Gasteyer and Will Ferrell as a pair of corny lounge singers.

Spiritual nourishment comes at a premium and “The Regime” arrives on our screens at a moment of great emergency and despair and mass human tragedy. It’s worth thinking critically about which narratives — whose stories — Hollywood executives deem worthy of their considerable backing.

“The Regime” is a critique in a vacuum which makes it no critique at all, a reconstruction masquerading as deconstruction. It is likely also taking inspiration from the 1940 comedy “The Great Dictator” starring Charlie Chaplin as a fictional Hilter-eseque character as well as a Jewish barber who looks just like him.

The movie is buoyant and silly and full of physical humor. It’s also just as interested in what life is like for the average (persecuted) person as the one in power. When the plot culminates in a case of mistaken identity, it creates an opening for Chaplin — who was also the film’s writer and director — to drop the comedy in favor of something riskier: Sincerity. His barber has some choice words for his fellow countrymen:

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