By Leah Rozen
January 12, 1998 12:00 PM

Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro

With the lifts in his shoes rivaling in height the moussed masses of his hair, Hoffman plays an ego-maniacal Hollywood producer who has done it all, seen it all. “You think this is trouble,” he says consolingly to his new colleagues from the White House as ever-worse disasters befall them while orchestrating, on a Hollywood soundstage, a fake military attack against the U.S. “Try having three Italian starlets whacked out on Benzedrine and grappa.”

Wag the Dog, a profoundly cynical but also profoundly funny political satire, takes as its starting position that all politics is show business. The military attack, which Hoffman has been recruited to produce by a top presidential spinmeister (De Niro), is part of a disinformation campaign aimed at distracting voters from the real news that, with an election looming, the fictional current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has dallied in his office longer than prudent with a teenage Fire-Fly Girl. Sound familiar? All good satire is rooted in truth.

Sprinting in at only 97 minutes, Wag is a below-the-Beltway comic triumph for director Barry Levinson and his game cast, who shot the film in just 29 days for $15 million. De Niro excels as the shambling shaman, Anne Heche is amusingly uptight as a presidential aide along for the ethical slide, and Woody Harrelson scores with a goofy, unbilled cameo as a pill-popping psycho. But it is Hoffman’s toweringly pygmyesque producer (who savvy show business insiders are claiming bears some resemblance to onetime studio head Robert Evans) who is the art and soullessness of the movie. (R)