They say timing is everything — or at least a whole lot. And on several fronts, the George Clooney-produced "Our Brand is Crisis," starring Sandra Bullock as a damaged, ruthless political consultant, has absolutely perfect timing.
First, it's election season: Enough said! And second, with all the recent discussion about the need for more diverse, open-minded casting, here's a role that was originally written for a man. And happily, in retrospect, the role seems like it SHOULD have been written for a woman — for Bullock, in fact. 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.
As for the film itself, directed by David Gordon Green, it's undeniably entertaining, but a conundrum. At times, it seems like a funny and penetrating political satire along the lines of "Veep" on HBO. (Check out the amusing llama scene. 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). At moments, these two aims mesh well enough; at others, the zig-zag effect is jarring.
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.
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. She's living in the boondocks somewhere, making pottery. She doesn't drink or smoke anymore, and says she can finally look herself in the eye.
But, like the proverbial wizened former cop brought in for one last case, Jane is convinced to join the campaign of a failing candidate in Bolivia. It's good money, but the real reason she agrees is that an old nemesis, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, channeling James Carville — who actually did work on the 2002 Bolivian election) is already down there working for the opposition. These two are warriors to the death.
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"). After some initial sluggishness (and slapsticky altitude sickness) her competitive juices kick in.
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's classic spin. Jane gets her guy to doff his suit jacket and roll up his sleeves. His poll numbers rise. "Our brand," Jane tells the team, "is crisis." Convince voters they're in crisis, and tell them how you're gonna save them.
The backdrop is the contentious relationship between Jane and Pat. While their byplay is entertaining, it's also frustrating. We don't learn enough about the background; it would help to know more, and sooner.
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.
An excellent supporting cast includes Anthony Mackie and the terrific Ann Dowd as fellow consultants. Yet it all rests on Bullock. She's fun to watch. Check out her priceless final remark in that llama scene. Her brand is Bullock, and it works pretty well.
"Our Brand Is Crisis," a Warner Bros release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "language including some sexual references." Running time: 107 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or guardian.
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