OUR BRAND IS CRISIS (2015) – The Review
So you’re tired of all the news reports and headlines about those campaigning for the president, in an election that’s still over a year away? Well, why not take in a movie at the multiplex? Here’s Sandra Bullock’s latest all about…a presidential campaign. Ah, but Sandy’s not in the running, although she’s dashing around quite a bit. She’s a campaign strategist who’s working for a candidate all the way south, very south, in Bolivia. So are presidential races there the same as up here, with sound bites, negative ads,and other ways to manipulate the media? You bet your ballot! So what does she come up with, how will her hopeful break away from the ‘pack’? Just one way, as Ms. B explains in the film’s first act, OUR BRAND IS CRISIS.
US Public relations vets Ben (Anthony Mackie) and Nell (Ann Dowd) have been hired by General Castillo (Joaquim de Almieda) to get his old job back. He was the president of Bolivia fifteen years ago, but was voted out when he privatized the local industries. Unfortunately the electorate has a long memory, which may account for him being down 28 points in the polls. But Nell has a plan, and so she and Ben drive up to a desolate cabin in the snow. They hope to lure the legendary strategist “Calamity” Jane Bodine (Bullock) out of a self-imposed retirement. After a stint in rehab, preceded by several unsuccessful gigs, she’s hesitant to get back in the game. But when she hears that the front-runner, Rivera, has hired her old nemesis Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), Jane puts away the clay pots and cups and hops on a Bolivian bound private jet. After meeting the third member of the American crew, the prickly Buckley (Scoot McNairy), and the surly, brusque Castillo, Jane hatches a campaign “scenario”: the country is in dire straights, on the brink of collapse, and the general is the only one who can save the day. Bringing in her top aide, “hit woman” LeBlanc (Zoe Kazan), and enlisting an enthusiastic local Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco), Jane attempts a career comeback, for the candidate and herself, as old demons from the past return.
In her first live action role since Oscar-nominated turn in GRAVITY, Bullock’s star charisma injects much-needed life in many of the story’s soggy stretches. In the scenes back in her tiny snow-bound cottage she projects a great deal of vulnerability with her hesitant line delivery and haunted “seen it all” stare. Upon her arrival on foreign soil, Bullock goes for laughs as Jane battles the effects of the altitude. This plays often as an appeasement to fans hoping for a reprise of the pratfalls from THE HEAT or the MISS CONGENIALITY flicks. But soon she puts down the ever-present bag a’ chips and gets down to business with a hard-driving, “take no prisoners” zeal that propels the plot forward, which seems to mask her sadness over the times she went too far for victory. Once again Bullock ably balances the tough and tender in an expert performance.
Happily, an accomplished ensemble aides Ms. Bullock. Thornton is an excellent sparring partner as the all “too slick” and smooth Mr. Candy, who knows exactly how to get under her skin, with his smug sarcasm twisting like a knife. Mackie is the questioning moral center of the PR team, standing up to Jane when she crosses the line. Dowd is the hardened vet and co-conspirator in Jane’s wild schemes, an “Ethel” to her “Lucy”. McNairy is very funny as the easily irritated and irritating Buckly, always quick with a lousy idea or crass comment. As the candidate, de Almeida, struts about as if the whole affair were beneath his regal, military bearing with a sinister glint in his eyes. It makes us wonder whether he can really woo the populace, as we question his true motives. The delightful Kazan is underused as Jane’s “ace up my sleeve”, but Pacheco has a great deal of youthful charm and energy as the optimistic Eddie who will eventually face the ugly, dark side of politics.
Although the film’s being marketed as a breezy “culture class” comedy, director David Gordon Green breaks out of the stoner comedy cage (YOUR HIGHNESS) to deliver a tough look at dirty side of campaigning. Unfortunately these two goals never quite gel. The high spirits wackiness of making tacky commercials with llamas and racing campaign buses over treacherous mountain roads slams up against ugly internet lies that inspire suicide and exploitation of the poor. Peter Straughan’s screenplay (inspired by the 2005 same-titled documentary) never really finds a way to balance that tone while keeping the story moving at a brisk pace. And the film’s main character is still something of a mystery by the end scenes. At one point she fully plunges back into her old vices (starting with the interminable chain-smoking), boozing with little ramifications other than waking up hung over in a jail cell. In the film’s final moments the script heads down a dark cynical path that is detoured with a contrived hopeful final shot that’s forced (I smell ‘test-marketing’ at work). It’s great to have Bullock back, but her considerable charisma and talents can’t erase the story and pacing flaws of OUR BRAND IS CRISIS.
3 Out of 5