Some things just take time: wine, a really good scotch, the education of a world champion quarterback.
For a quarter-century now, it has been near-universally known that the day would come that Forest Whitaker would deliver a film performance fully commensurate with his physical size. Greatness clearly resided somewhere within him, along with a real actor's willingness to search for it. It was just a matter of the right film and the right time and the right circumstances. We've seen him try repeatedly and come ever-so-close ("Bird," "The Crying Game").
But then we've also seen him making a living in dreck by the bushel and even take the director's chair in things that, to be charitable, were definitely in dreck's neighborhood ("Hope Floats," if not an actual dump site, is certainly a place to be avoided).
Whitaker's hour of onscreen ascension has finally arrived. He is truly great as Ugandan monster despot Idi Amin in Kevin McDonald's "The Last King of Scotland." It's the witty but ultimately harrowing tale of an idealistic young doctor who finds himself somehow bypassing the tyrant's paranoia and being taken into the monster's inner circle.
His eventual complicity in Amin's atrocities is assured. And so, too, is his eventual discovery of the true nature of the man who has so weirdly befriended him.
When we first meet the Scottish doctor, he is an adventurer and globe-trotter trying to get as far away from home as possible ("If we had monkeys in Scotland, we'd probably deep-fry them"). His tale is a kind of do-gooders progress, from the road to sainthood to his real destination in the suburbs of evil.
The movie is fast and knowing. A roadside encounter in Uganda with Idi Amin on his way to build "new schools, new roads" becomes the beginning of a one-sided friendship. The oversized tyrant develops an overpowering affection for the doctor. "In my heart," says Amin, "I am a simple man. . . . I am you." The doctor impresses Amin by stopping to kill a cow to put it out of its misery.
Amin presses him to become his personal physician -- and then, the only adviser he can somehow trust. Amin affectionately calls the doctor his "white monkey." In return, the doctor continues to be young, idealistic, horny and adventurous in a kind of post-schoolboy way. So he begins an affair with one of Amin's wives.
While African singers do their version of "Me and Bobby McGee," assignations are being made.
You don't need a compass to figure out where this is all going.
There is a lot of wit in this movie. But there is also a great deal of harrowing, horrifying violence as we watch the monster and his men on their appointed rounds.
And while James McEvoy is fine as the doctor, it is Whitaker who ingests the whole movie. This is not the Amin we used to see in the newsreels, whose blubbery sinister laugh and shifty eyes were frightening to the very degree that you could never be quite sure where stupidity stopped and evil began. Whitaker does something daring here: He plays Amin as a misunderstood victim, a jolly clown of perpetual grievance -- a dangerous paranoid but with reasons. What's so great about that is that it doesn't make Amin the slightest bit more sympathetic, and I'm sure Whitaker and director McDonald both know it.
Whitaker could have taken the easy way out and turned Idi Amin into a creature from the Theater of the Absurd -- a kind of relative of Alfred Jarry's King Ubu in "Ubu Roi." Instead, he used his head and his heart and came up with something vastly more unsettling.
McDonald comes from the world of documentary and, visually, this movie is wall-to-wall grit, as if the film stock had somehow miraculously survived sun and jungle rot.
A very good film, then, but not as good as its central performance.
THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND
3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Forest Whitaker and James McEvoy
DIRECTOR: Kevin McDonald
RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes
RATING: R for language, some sex and gruesome violence.
THE LOWDOWN: Much-praised performance by Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in a story based on an idealistic doctor caught up in Ugandan atrocity.