November 01, 2015

Where in the World is Sandra Bullock: Our Brand Is Crisis

Our Brand Is Crisis is like those lost presidential candidates who aren’t sure if they even want to be President, who soldier on as if by force, operating disinterested campaigns. Our Brand Is Crisis isn’t very sure of what it’s selling either. This film’s problem is every bit a structural one. Director David Gordon Green doesn’t know what this movie is, what it wants to be, or what it needs to be, to work. Green has a trump card—Sandra Bullock—but keeps her at bay as if afraid to overuse her star power. Considering how bland and forgettable this movie is, a little star power would have helped.  

Our Brand Is Crisis, which is based on the 2005 documentary of the same name, purports to show us the dastardly tactics of political strategists like James Carville, famous campaign manager for Bill Clinton. Carville is the closest thing to a pop political advisor, one who is almost as famous for his bald head, his Cajun accent (beautifully self-parodied in 30 Rock), his acerbic wit, and the fact that he’s a left-winger married to a right-winger, Mary Matalin. While James Carville is a fascinating character for a movie, this film is utterly un-fascinating. Carville—renamed Pat Candy for the film—is played by Billy Bob Thornton, who’s the perfect-looking choice. But Thornton is, like Sandra Bullock, kept in check by the director, so he doesn’t project the same brassy, larger-than-life image as the real Carville. Pat Candy is more of a comic foil for the main character, campaign strategist Jane Bodine, who’s played by Bullock.

Jane Bodine has acquired the nickname “Calamity Jane” during her long tenure as a campaign strategist. She’s propelled many politicians into a blaze of glory, and plunged just as many into the ground. Now, Bodine lives in voluntary exile in the mountains, trying to get over the last painful election, when she’s enlisted by the campaign managers of a Bolivian senator named Pedro Castillo. Castillo’s presidential run is barely viable: He was President years before and earned nothing but disdain from the Bolivian people; so Jane Bodine is tasked with transforming Castillo from a frog to a prince. Meanwhile, Jane’s arch nemesis Pat Candy happens to be working for Castillo’s opponent, the frontrunner. Candy and Bodine have a history fraught with dirty tricks, and the election becomes a stage to enact their personal vendettas against each other. (Of course, it’s not quite as serious as all that: there’s a semi-good-natured rivalry at the heart of their despicable mug-slinging tactics.)

The trouble is, Our Brand Is Crisis never rises above the level of a conventional political drama. David Gordon Green gets lost in developing a plot that doesn’t feel particularly urgent or interesting. That leaves us with the film’s perceptions about corruption in campaigns. But its perceptions are myopic and obvious: Crisis deals in generalities (the system as we know it is fundamentally broken and corrupt) and as such says nothing we don’t already know. And when he senses the movie has gotten away from him, Green throws in a few random scenes of comic lunacy to enliven things, unsuccessfully. Two examples: 1) When Bodine befriends some young Bolivian men and brings them back to her hotel room for a night of drunken reverie. After multiple rounds of drinks, they turn her bed sheet into a catapult, which they aim at Candy’s hotel room across the balcony. 2) When Castillo’s campaign bus tries to race the bus of the frontrunner, Rivera, and Bodine moons them. These scenes reek of desperation, and clash with the film’s naturally high-minded tone.  

When Sandra Bullock is allowed to command the screen and appear competent and in-control of herself, the movie improves; but Green keeps her on a tight leash. For the first twenty minutes after Jane arrives in Le Paz, she has intense nausea from the elevation, and so her character sits on a couch quietly while the others argue about how to resuscitate Castillo’s future. At times, Bullock is noticeably absent from a scene, or confined to the background until she suddenly and violently draws our attention to her, does something outlandish, and exits. During a campaign rally, a masked spectator smashes a raw egg on Castillo’s forehead, and Castillo decks him in front of the crowd and the news cameras. Green uses Sandra Bullock much like this egg-lobbing heckler. She is all shock value, and when the movie gets back to unraveling its plot, she returns to the foreground.

Why did David Gordon Green decide to keep his star at bay? The answer may be in Green’s intentions. It is conceivable that he wanted to make an insightful movie about the corruption of political campaigns, not just another Sandra Bullock vehicle. But without Sandra Bullock, the film is genuinely dull. None of the other characters develop into interesting people, except for Anthony Mackie, who transcends his role with his natural charm (he’s given no other tools to humanize his character). The characters in Crisis begin and end as the jaded, cynical worker bees of a miscarried political campaign.

Moreover, the film doesn’t make good on its attempts at criticizing the status quo. It waffles—like a politician finagling for votes—between high-minded drama and witty satire. Because none of the characters except Bodine has any life or humanity to them, it’s hard for us to care about the drama, and the film’s satire fizzles out from sheer laziness. We all know that politicians are liars, don’t we? Our Brand Is Crisis bandies that argument about as though it were a truly shocking exposé. As though that alone made for sharp satire.

On top of everything else, Green wants redemption for a world that is inherently unredeemable. In the end, Jane Bodine experiences a crisis of conscience that pushes her into a new career—the non-profit industry. I found it inspiring that Bodine had such a change of heart, but this did nothing for the movie, which emerges as a lackluster critique of politics in a world inundated with smart polemics about political corruption. I’m especially reminded of the 2009 film In the Loop and the HBO show Veep (both helmed by Armando Ianucci). In terms of incisive satire, Veep comes to the table brandishing a machete, where Our Brand Is Crisis is left wielding a butter knife. 

Written by Peter Straughan, who presumably shares some of the blame for the lackluster results. With Scott McNairy, Ann Dowd, Joaquim de Almeida, and Zoe Kazan.

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