While the film’s good-natured tone is unexpected and refreshing, however, it’s let down by a script that probably could have used another few passes to really nail what it was going for. The plot is thin, repetitive, and mostly devoid of any real tension, and the banter too often feels forced and not all that clever (the exception: an understated and highly amusing running joke about our current Commander-in-Chief). A narrative thread about the professional ventriloquism community seems to come from another movie entirely.
Raising Buchanan does have a gimmick, though, and it turns out to be a really good one. Once Ruth acquires Buchanan’s remains, the long-dead president periodically starts appearing to her as a kind of wisdom-dispensing imaginary friend. Said wisdom comes from a life prone to blunders and bad decisions, much like Ruth’s own, and thus, the pair are perfectly suited to one another. It’s purposely left unclear whether Buchanan is a ghost that only Ruth can see or simply a figment of her imagination, but either way, he’s the clear highlight of the movie.
Auberjonois, perhaps best remembered as Odo on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, brings a kind of quiet grace to the character, whom Dellis imbues with the characteristic bluster of a career statesman, but also a sad self-awareness regarding his own disastrous reputation. The performance is warm and committed and ultimately very charming, and the actor (who passed away in late 2019) seems to really relish both the stately monologues and the comedic back-and-forth that Buchanan’s apparition is afforded.
“…the film’s good-natured tone is unexpected and refreshing…”
Speaking of brilliant character actors from generations past, the great M. Emmet Walsh appears here, as well, playing Ruth’s terminally ill father. The wizened Blood Simple co-star supplies some of the film’s most poignant moments, and while he and Auberjonois don’t appear on screen together, their combined efforts and their comforting, old-school screen presence are what really put Raising Buchanan over the top.
Of course, if there are any James Buchanan apologists out there (not likely, but possible), this might be the movie they’ve been waiting their entire lives for. Dellis doesn’t exactly seem to be one, himself, but there’s something admirable in the way that Raising Buchanan at least attempts to give the maligned ex-president a fair shake that history never really cared to. As Buchanan explains it to Ruth, he didn’t necessarily want to support slavery or touch off the Civil War; circumstances simply forced him to make a series of difficult political decisions that didn’t work out in his favor.
Thanks to the great sympathy of Auberjonois’ performance and the film’s overall redemptive, optimistic spirit, it’s pretty easy to believe he may have been judged a little more harshly than was necessary. Surely, Buchanan was never going to earn the kind of cinematic lionization that so many American filmmaking greats (like Steven Spielberg and John Ford) gave to good old Abe Lincoln, but he could have done a whole lot worse than this.