Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: "Our Brand Is Crisis"

Forty years ago we made movies like "The Candidate" about well-meaning people who get sucked up into the dirty tide of electioneering that comes with democracy. Ours was portrayed as a corrupt system with political operates whispering dark counsel into candidates' gullible ears.

Now we've moved on from idolizing the candidates to embracing the mercenary advisers themselves. Dark money? How about dark Hollywood.

"Our Brand Is Crisis" is based on a documentary of the same name made a decade ago based on the true story of some veteran American political operatives, including Clintonistas Bob Shrum and James Carville, who were recruited to help a candidate for President of Bolivia. They made a bunch of money and their guy won the election, but not much changed in the poverty-stricken South American country.

Instead of paunchy middle-aged guys going south of the border, it's a wan but steely woman named Jane Bodine, aka "Calamity Jane" for her tendency to blow things up with her erratic behavior. It's a showcase role for Sandra Bullock, who is the best thing about the movie, along with Billy Bob Thornton as Pat Candy -- love that name! -- as her slithery nemesis.

They're also about all that works about the film. The pair like to sidle up to each other in the middle of campaign events, softly and delicately threaten each other and the opposing candidate, and then walk off with the upper hand. Candy even takes the hotel room directly opposite Jane's so he can intimidate her, leering at her and even putting his hand down his pants to adjust his package.

Jane was the best of the best but hit a string of failures, most at Candy's hands, and gave up the political racket six years ago to make pottery in a cabin in the mountains. She gets recruited by Ann Dowd and Anthony Mackie as Nell and Ben, who need help because their guy is down 28 points, and alsy because they want someone to blame if they don't win.

The problem is the candidate, Castilla (Joaquim de Almeida). He's a symbol of the oligarchs who have ruled the nation but are resented by the mostly poor and uneducated indigenous people. Castillo actually briefly was president 15 years ago, and is mostly remembered for having the police open fire on protesters. He's arrogant, aloof and resentful -- of his upstart opponent, Rivera (Louis Arcella), but also at having had to bring in Americans.

Our crew slowly brings things around, through a combination of negative campaigning and teaching Castillo to push the idea that the country is in crisis. Of course, Candy's got a few tricks up his sleeve, and the underhanded plays go back and forth.

Directed by David Gordon Green ("Pineapple Express") from a script by Pete Straughan ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"), "Our Brand Is Crisis" has the classy veneer of an awards contender. It was produced by George Clooney and partner Grant Heslov, and Straughan is one of their go-to screenwriters.

The film's main problem is trying to do too much with too little.

For awhile it's a character study of Jane, who's so checked out when first arriving in Bolivia that she throws up at her first meeting with the candidate. Then it seems to want to be about the fraught relationship between Jane and Candy, which contains a dangerous undertone of unacknowledged sexual attraction. Then there's Jane's approach to Castillo, which zigzags from dismissing him as a total loser to seeing him as her last hope for redemption.

Scoot McNairy, one of my favorite character actors working today, is ill-used as a self-deluded media flack. Zoe Kazan turns up as LeBlanc, Jane's pet opposition research whiz kid.

The movie leaves the politics as vague as possible, only alluding to the IMF as a playing card to be dealt and shuffled as the need suits.

Bullock and Thornton have a lot of snap in their shared screen moments, but they're fleeting and ultimately lack any real meat. "Our Brand Is Crisis" needed a rethink from the grass roots on up.

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