Monday, October 17, 2011

Electoral Foul-Up

To hear the industry tell it, Ryan Gosling is the hottest actor in Hollywood as you read this. While much consternation was raised earlier this year over Gosling’s apparent Oscar snub for his role in the indie drama Blue Valentine nobody can doubt the attention he has earned in 2011, in which he has had arguably his biggest year to date. In fact, today marks the third review I’ve written in three months that has starred the young actor, the first two being the romantic comedy Crazy Stupid Love with Steve Carell and the noir crime drama Drive. With The Ides of March, Gosling takes on the world of political intrigue in a film directed by co-star George Clooney. Clooney knows what it’s like to be the hot hand of Hollywood, as he has managed to build a strong career based especially on his charisma and excellent acting. Clooney has had twenty-five years to ascend to that status, with his starring turn in the CBS medical drama E.R. and a robust film resume that has seen plenty of misses but even more hits, and he was a huge reason films like Out of Sight, Michael Clayton and the Oceans trilogy were so well received. His directing career, however, has been a different story. While 2005’s Good Night and Good Luck was a true gem (and probably would have won its best picture nomination had Crash not come out the same year), other films directed by Clooney have been far from well received. Still, the good will Clooney has generated from audiences goes a long way, and his latest attempt behind the camera takes one of the more talented young men in Hollywood to see what he can do with Mr. Gosling.
Wait, does that sign say George Clooney is Evil? Blasphemy!
Based on Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, the story follows Stephen Meyers (Gosling), the junior campaign manager for Democratic Presidential hopeful Mike Morris (Clooney). Having served on more electoral campaigns than most have by the time they are forty, Stephen is a true believer in the Governor of Pennsylvania. He believes that Morris is not only the best candidate for whom he has worked, but the only one who can and will actually make a change for the good of the country. Currently they are campaigning alongside senior campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in Ohio, hoping for a victory in the Primaries here that will easily secure the Democratic nomination. But while this is going on, Stephen discovers a secret that not only throws his confidence in Morris in doubt, but could officially end the Governor’s political career. Now he must determine which is the better option: making sure his flawed man reaches the White House, or throwing in with the competition and rival Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) to make sure that Morris doesn’t reach that goal.

Sadly, Clooney's inspiration did not help "Bring the Sexy Back" to the campaign trail
If you want to enjoy The Ides of March, you might have to love politics. I’m not saying this because the film is unapproachable to those who don’t, but the learning curve is certainly steep enough for the uninitiated. The actors involved toss out factoids concerning political history almost at random, and though they are no doubt at least somewhat essential to understanding the scene they are almost completely forgotten by the time the closing credits rolled. You can either take in these random bits of information as a pure sideline entertainment and by turn having a leg up on your fellow movie watchers, or you can ignore them completely and try to just follow the mood of the story as it goes along. The latter is certainly where most would tread, but unfortunately you can’t get the full campaign experience without trying to understand why the characters act the way they do. Thankfully the major themes are ones that EVERYONE should be able to understand, and that the film succeeds in not completely alienating its audience it a minor victory.

Presidential jaw, Presidential hair... you sure he's not a Republican?
Unfortunately, that’s about all this film can say went right, as even those political aficionados would have little reason to sit through The Ides of March’s entire 101 minutes. Doubtless there are any large number of conflicts in a Presidential campaign, but why on Earth did Clooney and company have to make the entire thing so DULL? Perhaps it’s not entirely his fault, and the Willimon play is at least part of the problem. That still doesn’t excuse the fact that a film full to the brim with devious schemes, political intrigue, scandals, deception, blackmail and revenge is so utterly uninteresting to watch. What should have been keeping me riveted to my seat instead kept me waiting for something, ANYTHING to happen. With surprisingly horrid pacing, I simply didn’t care about this candidate, this election or any of the underpinning issues that went into it, and that is certainly the fault of the filmmakers.

Some people will just never be happy
At least an excellent cast has been brought in to somewhat raise the level of the tepid script. Gosling once again argues that he belongs in Hollywood’s upper echelon. While not near as memorable as his previous starring roles, he is still perfectly cast as the closest thing the audience has to a hero. Stephen is smart, talented, charming and experienced, and should be easy to root for. Even when his character’s morals and methods change, Gosling is entirely in control. Easily the rising star of 2011, his dedication to roles like this should cement his future superstardom. Clooney as a Presidential candidate is not all that different from Clooney in the public eye: he’s charming, looks the part and can speak publicly with the best of them. In short, Clooney carries the perfect political persona. His performance might be a little on the nose (and therefore lacking the diversity to be interesting) but since many celebrity hounds already see him as a potential Presidential front runner, he was in fact the best choice for the role. Philip Seymour Hoffman has always been a strong character actor. Once again however he is an actor straining to be free from the confines of a singularly rote character, even one with some devious methods all his own. Hoffman is most certainly too much actor for the part he plays, but he still brings a ton of professionalism and talent to the cast. Possibly shining most brightly is Paul Giamatti as an unscrupulous campaign manager who tries to tempt Stephen to joining the other side. Smarmy and duplicitous, it’s easy to pin the main antagonist tag on his head, and it’s difficult to believe that this is the same guy who was the hero of this year’s indie dramedy Win Win. Like Hoffman, he’s one of the most talented character actors in Hollywood today. Others who contribute are The Wrestler actresses Marissa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood. Tomei is a political journalist for the New York Times, while Wood plays an intern and romantic interest for Stephen. Both have their roles to play, and while Tomei is limited in scope for her character, Wood turns out to be almost a kindred spirit to Gosling, and the attention that gets focused on her is not put to waste in even the slightest fashion. Jeffrey Wright is another talented performer, but unfortunately his character – an Ohio politician whose endorsement would be essential to Morris’ victory – harbors too much of a vibe copied from baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson (right down to the facial hair), with his own aspirations above that of the people he represents.

Sadly, Morris' other slogan "Hope" was already taken
Clooney might be responding somewhat to much of the populace thinking he’d be a great political frontrunner (and he might at that), but in The Ides of March he presents so jaded and dark a vision of the American political system that there is really no cause for even the smallest hopes of purity to arise. Between that, the bland dullness of a script, too many cliched characters and sheer lack of imagination (they reuse a famous scandal to try and move the story forward) take this film from being one of the big contenders of 2011 to somewhere amidst the pack of wannabes. When a political thriller doesn’t particularly THRILL, it’s a cause for serious concern, and this title has the feel of a half-baked drama that was rushed out the door. Sadly, this might even be the wrong time for The Ides of March to be released, as the demonstrations occurring across the country suggests that people have had their fill of corruption for the time being. The Ides of March is not Oscar worthy, but it does have enough going for it to perhaps fool many into thinking otherwise. If you’re big into politics and want to see a bunch of talented actors do what they do so well, this film will whet your palate nicely. If not, then when I see you next we can move on.

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