Our Brand is Crisis review

crisis-posterMaybe if I weren’t such a stone cold political skeptic, I’d have had a better time with Our Brand is Crisis, but as it is, the murky ethics on display took me out of the film entirely, and did so in a matter of minutes. I assure you that I hate the rampant overuse of this word by people who simply don’t want to explore their discomfort beyond a surface level assessment of a cultural item, but this film was most definitely … ahem … problematic. And it’s a real shame too. Somewhere buried within this movie is an interesting, important film, one that could challenge our views of the powers that be, a la Wag the Dog, but it never comes to the surface.

Loosely based on the 2005 documentary of the same name, David Gordon Green’s comedy (Drama? Political statement?) tells the story of “Calamity” Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock), the campaign manager of all campaign managers. She earned her nickname by being so shameless, so willing to forego ethics for cash, that she always gets her candidate elected. Well, unless the opposing candidate is being managed by Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), her long time rival. The film opens with Jane long out of the politics game. She’s quit smoking, quit drinking, and is living a quiet life in a cozy mountain home. She’s taken up pottery and has, in her words, found peace in being calm. But all of this changed when she receives a visit from a few campaign workers looking to help a disgraced Bolivian presidential candidate climb the polls. Jane is resistant at first, but when she is offered a large sum of money, and a chance to defeat Candy – who is managing the opposition – she sells out and joins the team.

From here the film is a mish-mash of undercooked genre work. At times it’s a slapstick comedy, with Bullock acting manic and clumsy much to the chagrin of the stoic political folk around her. Other times it’s a drama, and we’re supposed to get wrapped up in political fast-talk. It even dips into “spunky professional lady” territory, where it tries to evoke films like Erin Brockovich, and trust me, this film is no Erin Brockovich. The only time the film really shines is when Thornton and Bullock share the screen. Their scenes evoke some of the loftier work of the Coens (it’s like a diet Intolerable Cruelty), but it still feels lacking. While the Coens are great at making protagonists of despicable people, the characters in Brand are simply despicable.

And therein lies my accusations of the film being problematic. There is no reason to root for anyone. Jane has been bought by vengeance and simple greed to work a campaign for a candidate who we know is a poor choice for Bolivia. She sells out her own personal growth in an upsetting way, and were told to root for her simply because she’s Sandra Bullock. The opposing candidate isn’t painted as good or bad, but we want him to lose simply because. Meanwhile, the people of Bolivia are just a brown-skinned, nameless, faceless nuisance; a hurdle over which our lead characters must jump in order to be expressly villainous. In fact, the only Bolivian voter with any sort of arc is essentially screwed out of any chance for a good life simply because he has he audacity to be hopeful and idealistic. It’s hard to laugh at even the highest quality gags when this veil of mean-spiritedness hangs over the entire film, and with the film being so overtly bland, there’s no chance for any of it to play as subversive fun (once again, I cite the Coen brothers). Late in the game there is an effort to redeem Jane’s character, but it’s extremely late in the game (like, in the seconds before the credits roll), and it’s much too little — the damage is long since done.

crisis-postThe real tragedy here is that the performances are all fantastic. Bullock has star-power in spades, and it’s all earned. Thornton is never not good, and he’s clearly having fun here. Ann Dowd is underused, but brings a class to the proceedings matched only by that of Anthony Mackie, who simply drips charisma. Scoot McNairy is the arbiter of the film’s most successful attempts at humor, and makes a strong case for himself as a cinematic chameleon (he’s like a Gary Oldman in that I don’t know what he actually looks or sounds like). The standout performance however, goes to Joaquim de Almeida, as our presidential hopeful. He plays Senator Castillo in such a believable way, that I’d think he were an actual politician if not for my love of Fast Five (in which he’s plays essentially the same character).

As I said before, I’m a devout political skeptic, so watching a story about America capitalizing foreign campaign management just feels ooky to me. Perhaps someone less hardened by their own cynicism will find the film enjoyable (there certainly are a lot of potentially fun moments — I just couldn’t abide them), and I really hope they do, because it’s a competently made film by a filmmaker I generally like. But for my taste, it’s just too damn … ahem … problematic.

Our Brand in Crisis opens today in Philly area theaters.

Official site.

Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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