Once a fierce campaign strategist known as “Calamity Jane”, Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) is now out of the game, having been pushed out due to her ruthless strategies and self-destructive behavior. But a second chance arrives when her former campaign teammate Nell (Ann Dowd) and a new hotshot strategist Ben (Anthony Mackie) show up at her door with an offer for one last job: Revitalizing the nearly-dead campaign of Bolivian candidate Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), an unpopular former president of Bolivia who’s trailing every other candidate.
Ah – yes, the “one last job” narrative. Looks like it goes beyond just the usual mobsters and thieves.
Jane arrives in Bolivia looking to shake up Castillo’s campaign and give it the boost it so desperately needs, while battling her former rival Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton) who heads the campaign of the country’s leading candidate.
Loosely based on Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary of the same name, Our Brand Is Crisis combines the directing talents of David Gordon Green with producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov, the Oscar-winning duo behind Good Night, and Good Luck, The Ides of March and Best Picture winner Argo. Right there, you have me on board, and we haven’t even yet gotten to the talented cast that includes Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd and Scoot McNairy.
So how is it that a film with that much promise turns out to be as bad as it is?
While both Clooney and Heslov have collaborated on some top-notch films, the three films mentioned above, political satire hasn’t been their strong suit. 2010’s The Men Who Stare at Goats was a big misfire and now you can toss this film in the dumpster with it as well. Written by Peter Straughan, who wrote a strong adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the wonderfully weird Frank, Our Brand Is Crisis is tonally all over the place. The first act opens as satire on the campaign strategy process, then detours down some nonsensical paths with a Pineapple Express style drug-fueled party montage and a ludicrous bus chase that makes no sense, before finally taking a sharp turn into highly serious territory. It’s as if Straughan ran out of ideas to satirize early on, so he figured he’d switch gears and close with a serious message. It’s hard to take what he sees as an important issue seriously, though, when he barely puts any focus on the Bolivian citizens, the primary subjects of the issue.
Rule of thumb: If you’re gonna give us satire, stick to your guns all the way through.
Even as satire, this is fairly toothless stuff. Let’s see, I learned that campaign strategists work like advertisers, politics is a game of dirty pool and politicians lie and betray. Well, congrats on teaching us what we’ve already known for the past hundred years.
What winds up being surprising is David Gordon Green’s attachment to this. Granted, I guess you can say nothing is really that surprising with a filmmaker who’s resume ranges from George Washington and Snow Angles to The Sitter and Your Highness to Prince Avalanche and Joe. However, all of Green’s distinct touches, be it the dialogue, or the characters or visual style (most unfortunate since his go-to cinematographer Tim Orr shot this) are noticeably absent. If there’s any director this year that has earned the title of being nothing more than a hired gun, Green would be it. Knowing what he’s brought to his best films, it’s a shame that he brings none of his unique flavor to the table here (to be fair, the studios were pushing this more as a Clooney/Heslov production more than a Green film).
Both Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton (who can play these slick and slimy roles in his sleep) are quite good, despite the poorly drawn characters they’re playing. That’s a lot a more than I can say for Ann Dowd, Anthony Mackie and Scoot McNairy, whose talents are all wasted, though Joaquim de Almeida turns in fine supporting work as Bolivia’s wildly unpopular presidential candidate.
As good as Bullock’s work here is, and the scenes where she’s in full-strategy mode at the campaign headquarters are the film’s few highlights, her character is just as uneven as the film’s story. At first, she’s known for being cutthroat and ruthless, which is no big deal and for a political strategist is no surprise either, but as the story goes on, it’s as if she becomes more and more neurotic. Provided the film stayed in satirical territory, that change in character might’ve worked. Wag the Dog, an excellent example of political satire, proved you can take crazy satire and run with it (Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Dr. Strangelove is another perfect example). But when the film decides to get all sanctimonious on us, her behavioral change just comes off as jarring and her moment of clarity at the end when she’s suddenly grows a heart or whatever couldn’t feel any more false.
Though there are moments of inspired bite, and it obviously benefits from having Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton, Our Brand Is Crisis is a mostly tame, oftentimes clunky, and horribly uneven attempt at political satire that concludes with an unforgivably heavy-handed ending. Considering the immense talents of not just its cast, but director David Gordon Green and producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov, all of whom have given us much, much superior work before, you expect better than this mess.
I give Our Brand Is Crisis a D+ (★½).