Our Brand is Crisis

It takes a good long while to figure what sort of political movie Our Brand is Crisis is, exactly. Is it a goofy farce, a cynical satire or an earnest sermon? It sprinkles in elements of all three, at various points conjuring up memories of everything from Wag the Dog to The Candidate to Primary Colors to Recount to Bob Roberts to The Ides of March. In the end, though, it isn't really any of those things, but rather a film that uses political comedy and drama in the service of a story about a woman finding herself. It's not quite Eat Pray Vote, but it comes awfully close.

Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side) plays “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a renowned political consultant who has been retired for a few years. She was terrific at her job, but running campaigns eventually sent her into a personal spiral that led to a long stint in rehab. Now, she just wants to stay at home, cook, drink coffee and mind her own business. After hearing an earnest sales pitch from political consulting firm employees Ben (Anthony Mackie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Nell (Ann Dowd, The Leftovers), she reluctantly agrees to dip her toes back into the water by traveling to Bolivia and taking over the campaign of struggling candidate Pedro Castillo (Joaquin de Almeida, 24). The real motivation: the campaign of Castillo's chief rival is being run by Jane's old nemesis Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, The Man Who Wasn't There), and Jane is eager to hand him a defeat.

There's something awfully old-fashioned about the attitude Our Brand is Crisis has towards modern politics, and that's not necessarily a good thing. It expects us to be surprised and amused by the way the dueling political campaigns evolve: the rhetoric gets sharper, the political stunts start getting more outlandish, the attack ads start circulating and things get increasingly nasty. The notion that politicians will do almost anything to win is undeniably true, but it seems strange for a film to act as if it's shattering illusions when all it's doing is telling us what we already know. Politicians are duplicitous? Political consultants are ruthless? Real problems often become secondary concerns to political power struggles? Who ever would have guessed?

David Gordon Green – further cementing his status as cinema's most maddeningly inconsistent director – never quite manages to find the tone he's looking for, ping-ponging between earnest drama and broad comedy on a fairly regular basis. One minute, Jane is accidentally breaking a folding chair, playing silly pranks on Pat Candy or throwing up in the middle of a high-stakes meeting. Another minute, she's somberly listening to the tragic life story of an ordinary Bolivian teenager (Reynaldo Pachecho) who's full of hope and idealism. Bullock (sporting perpetually messy hair to indicate how little time Jane has to focus on her personal life) is pretty good at both playing both sides of the coin (she's a gifted comedienne and a capable dramatic actress), but the film's commitment to realism seems to fluctuate from scene to scene, and the credibility of Bullock's character follows suit. Too often, this feels like a first draft of a movie.

Most of the supporting characters don't feel entirely finished, either. The other members of the consulting firm Bullock is collaborating with (including characters played by Mackie, Dowd and Scoot McNairy) mostly exist to either look at Jane with concern and skepticism or to grin at Jane and say things like, “You know, I underestimated you.” Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks) is introduced as a “political fixer” who is capable of all kinds of horrible things, but that introduction suggests that the movie will actually give her something to do. It does not. Thornton seems to be having a good time chewing on the scenery, but the cartoon villain he's playing is a whole lot less interesting (and convincing) than the complicated James Carville stand-in he essayed in Primary Colors. Amusingly, the most convincing character is De Almeida's Castillo, who is defined by his lack of definition.

The film never quite manages to convince you that it's going to be good (it starts overplaying its hand very quickly by loading the soundtrack with on-the-nose tunes like “I'd Love to Change the World” and “Puppet Man”), but it's still a little dispiriting when you realize that this whole thing isn't really about politics or Bolivia or corruption, but about Jane figuring out who she really is. 

Shortly before reviewing this film, I reviewed the Bradley Cooper vehicle Burnt. Forgive me the sin of quoting myself:

Burnt isn't a bad movie, but it's definitely the sort of story that gets told a little too often in the world of cinema... the tale of a guy just trying to find his center and figure out who he is.”

Burnt is technically an international culinary dramedy and Our Brand is Crisis is technically an international political dramedy, but both of them merely use the colorful professions and foreign locations at their center as a fancy backdrop for shallow tales of wealthy, successful Americans doing a little soul-searching (and both grow so invested in that quest that they fail to give their overqualified supporting actors sufficient material to work with). Sure, sure, we must find a way to fuse doing what we love with doing what is right. More movies that are actually about what they're about, please.

Our Brand is Crisis

Rating: ½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Year: 2015