Bullock, Thornton can’t save ‘Our Brand is Crisis’

31 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Our Brand is Crisis’ review: Sandra Bullock carries this less-than-sharp political satire.

Another fall season dud arrives in the form of “Our Brand is Crisis,” an arguably ill-advised feature film about modern political cynicism inspired by the award-winning 2005 documentary written and directed by Rachel Boynton with the same title. If you look at it as another sincere and affectionate cover-band take on a popcorn genre from director David Gordon Green, Our Brand Is Crisis almost makes sense.

Produced by veterans George Clooney and Grant Heslov (“The Monuments Men”) and scripted by Englishman Peter Straughan (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), the film pits Sandra Bullock’s political strategist-for-hire “Calamity” Jane Bodine against role model and rival Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, head-shaved, in a role based on James Carville) in a contest to win the presidency of Bolivia for their respective candidates. Pineapple Express was Green’s “’80s action comedy” movie, Your Highness was his “sword and sorcery” movie, and this one is his “Sandra Bullock” movie. Bullock plays the fictionalized “Calamity’’ Jane Bodine in David Gordon Green’s very loose adaptation of a documentary about battling American political consultants who shaped the 2002 Bolivian presidential election. In Jane’s case, the candidate is former Bolivian president Castillo (veteran Portuguese leading man Joaquim de Almeida), an arrogant, cigar-chomping, jaded politician and oligarch, who does not have the common touch.

It doesn’t find a new angle from which to approach a star who’s been eclipsed by a persona, the way Green did with Nicolas Cage in 2013’s Joe and Al Pacino in 2014’s Manglehorn. Both consultants were men in real life, but one of the roles in this long-in-development project (originally intended for producer George Clooney) was rewritten to Bullock’s strengths as a comedian (including slapstick skills we haven’t seen in some time) and dramatic actress. It just succumbs to Bullock’s gravitational pull, content to watch her play a medley of her greatest hits — funny, relatable klutz; recovering alcoholic; problem-solving tough broad; and (eventually) white savior — as a limp political satire unfolds around her.

Bullock’s Jane goes to town as a ruthless consultant who is recruited out of retirement by a couple of other desperate consultants (Anthony Mackie and Ann Dowd) four years after a tragic incident led to substance-abuse problems and a breakdown. That is until Jane, who quotes “The Art of War” and Machiavelli, is inspired to make the race all about a mostly phony “crisis” engulfing Bolivia. With Bolivia facing severe hardships she creates a campaign that plays up the country’s crisis and positions her man as a tough guy who won’t pussyfoot around the problems.

It’s a thornier, meatier role than she’s had in a while, one that allows her to use her well-honed comic chops while also digging deeper into a complicated, very flawed character. Once she gets over altitude sickness and her revulsion for the ex-president, Jane proposes an American-style campaign that offers the candidate up as the only solution to a manufactured “crisis” in Bolivia — arguing that voters will fall back on the familiar candidate rather than a more hopeful newcomer when they are afraid. If Jane can convince enough voters that Castillo’s experience outweighs Rivera’s authentic concern for the people, she can turn the tables, maybe. In 2002, the Bolivian politician Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada, who’d served as president of Bolivia from 1993 to 1997, ran for the same office again, this time with the American political consulting firm Greenberg Carville Shrum in his corner.

It’s her Erin Brockovich, the story of a person’s realization that her efforts can affect, both positively and negatively, the lives of a great many people. Our heroine is energized by her longtime rivalry with the other candidate’s American consultant, whose ruthless tactics in an earlier election she suspects may have led to her breakdown. He’s played with malevolent charm by Billy Bob Thornton as a less flamboyant version of the real-life “Ragin’ Cajun” James Carville than the one Thornton offered in the Bill-Clinton-à-clef comedy “Primary Colors” (1998). He doesn’t really have the support of the Bolivian people, including the country’s deeply disenfranchised indigenous majority, and when he makes the unpopular decision to begin piping Bolivia’s natural-gas resources to Mexico and California through Chile, the population rises up in anger. Yes, we said llama.) At others, it’s trying to be a much weightier morality tale (It’s based on — or rather “suggested by” Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary of the same name).

Thornton has such great chemistry with Bullock (in his best film work in years) that I wish he had more screen time, but Thornton makes the most of what he gets. Protesters clash with Bolivia’s police and armed forces, and by the time de Lozada resigns and flees to the United States in October 2003, at least 70 people have been killed, most of them civilians. Eduardo, who is poor, naively puts Castillo on a pedestal because the politician once held him for a photo opportunity when “Eddie” was an infant. Bullock is Jane Bodine, otherwise known as Calamity Jane, famous for winning elections at any cost. “The truth is what I tell the electorate the truth is,” she likes to say. The film is a dark political comedy about how completely heartless and soulless the process is today, and we’re supposed to end up caring about what happens to the mostly faceless Bolivians at the end.

As head pollster and strategist Jeremy Rosner explains early on, GCS is all about “progressive policy for profit,” which means swinging elections in favor of vaguely Clintonesque pro-globalization candidates on the debatable principle that any country’s poorest people always benefit when the free-market guy wins. When we first meet Jane, she’s retired from the down-and-dirty world of politics, having been felled by a scandal involving the violation of election laws. The most compelling character in Boynton’s film is James Carville, blazingly telegenic as always, the life of the party in every meeting, selling cracker wisdom like magic beans, as unconcerned with the specifics of Bolivian politics and history as a coked-up lead singer asking a Cleveland crowd if Cincinnati is ready to rock. But the movie’s spine is an interview with Rosner, who Boynton walks slowly but surely toward something resembling a confession — that by twisting the campaign away from actual issues and swinging the election for a marginal candidate who lacked popular support, GCS was at least partially responsible for the chaos and death that followed.

As much as I admire Bullock and Thornton, I could not warm up to the damaged Jane or sulfurous, serpentine Pat, except when she pulls a neat trick on him near the end. She hasn’t run a campaign in six years?” The worst thing about this movie isn’t the fuzziness of its politics; it’s that it assembles pretty much the best supporting cast you could ask for — from Dowd and Mackie to Scoot McNairy and Zoe Kazan — and gives them nothing to do but stand around in conference rooms asking dumb questions for the audience’s benefit. “This thing with Candy,” McNairy’s adman character says at one point. “It’s like they got some Sicilian blood feud going on. Did they used to work together?” You will maybe not be surprised to learn that Jane and Candy do have a history, and that it’s connected to Jane’s amoral disengagement from the ideological side of the political game. Arriving in La Paz, Jane confronts a candidate who is standoffish, elitist, and 28 points behind (Portuguese actor Joaquim de Almeida is perfect for the role, and will be readily recognized by fans of “24”). The tension between them doesn’t play, because Thornton and Bullock never seem to be on the same page performance-wise; watching them cycle through emotions in their scenes together is like watching two slot machines try to ring cherries.

Apart from a thudding moment in which Mackie’s character establishes his idealistic streak by admitting that he spent time in a Buddhist monastery years ago — and McNairy’s perfect creative-class-douchebag wardrobe notwithstanding — you never really get a sense of who these characters are, professionally or as people. Observers of U.S. politics will recognize every lesson learned here; When Pat seeks to exploit Jane’s candidate’s short temper, resulting in the candidate punching a man, Jane stops her team from crafting an apology, and frames the punch as a sign of his no-crap approach. It won’t win anything, but the best movie I’ve seen this Oscar season is Denis Villenueve’s Sicario, another movie about an idealistic female protagonist facing the dawning realization that she’s complicit in making the world worse. It all ends with the election, of course, but a subplot involving an idealistic young volunteer (appealing Bolivian actor Reynaldo Pacheo) keeps the film honest, as it were, with an ending aimed at making us wonder what it all was for in the first place.

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