Sandra Bullock and Joaquim de Almeida in Our Brand Is Crisis (Patti Perret)
Sandra Bullock may be the star of Our Brand Is Crisis, but it is essentially a George Clooney film; his presence is deeply felt even though he neither stars in nor directs the political comedy-drama. David Gordon Green – the auteur behind minimalist independent films like All the Real Girls, as well as broad stoner comedies like Pineapple Express – handles the direction, but Clooney is a producer, once again serving the market for mainstream fare for those who have aged out of interest in the latest superhero adventure but are not quite old enough for another Tom Hanks paean to the Greatest Generation.
This is a market that Clooney has nearly cornered for himself. Adult dramas like Michael Clayton, Up in the Air, The Descendants and The Ides of March are examples of these Clooney vehicles about disillusioned but still vital and energetic middle-aged professionals that do not condescend to mainstream moviegoers but still entertain them. Few of these films are made by major studios, and Clooney seems to have his hands in most of them. This is a rare situation for Hollywood, which once turned out regular fare by directors such as Mike Nichols and Sydney Pollack that appealed to that type of audience, starring actors like Paul Newman and Robert Redford, who could carry the occasional action film but were never defined by them.
In Our Brand Is Crisis, Bullock plays Jane Bodine, a campaign manager who is called out of retirement to help manage a presidential campaign by a longshot candidate who held the presidency more than a decade before. This is the quintessential Clooney role: a smart, jaded, competent professional who nonetheless maintains a barely-suppressed idealistic streak. Initial drafts of the screenplay conceived of the character as a man, and it seems logical that Clooney might have been the character’s initial inspiration, but Bullock demonstrates that roles such as these rarely need to be defined by gender. It is easy to assume that little changed in the screenplay by refashioning it for Bullock, except for the relationship between Bullock’s character and Billy Bob Thornton’s rival campaign operative, who openly lusts for Jane.
Bullock is almost never less than competent in a role, even in those frequent cases where her roles are underwritten, and Our Brand Is Crisis is no exception. She is fine, particularly in the early scenes when the film plays more as a comedy than a drama. Her performance has shades of the fast-talking women of screwball comedy like Rosalind Russell, but never descends into an imitation of that stylized form of comedy, even when the film seems to move at that genre’s breakneck pace.
The interplay between Bullock and Thornton is a bit Tracy-Hepburn, and a bit their modern, real-life equivalent Mary Matalin and James Carville. It is impossible to have Thornton play a political operative without evoking Carville, a role he did a thinly-veiled version of in the Clinton satire Primary Colors, and Thornton’s shaved head makes the comparison even clearer than his earlier take on the Cajun politico. Complaining that this is familiar territory for Thornton is like complaining that Maggie Smith plays too many imperious English aristocrats. When such roles exist, there is no one else who should handle them.
The earlier scenes of comic mayhem are the best in Our Brand Is Crisis, which loses momentum once the film begins to tread more serious issues concerning the implications of Jane’s work for the candidate. The film is better as a winking satire of the political process than a full-scale indictment. The film is more incisive when it makes the point about the ills of exporting American democracy in a satiric manner than a dramatic one. Fortunately, even though the satire recedes as the film progresses, it never fully disappears.
Our Brand is Crisis is the rare film that targets adults whose tastes are too mature for Marvel but not quite refined enough for Malick. George Clooney may have kept this type of film alive, but Sandra Bullock proves equally adept at handling the venerable but fading Hollywood genre.
Our Brand Is Crisis
Warner Bros. Pictures
In theaters Oct. 30
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