Friday, October 7, 2011
In Shakespeare's play "Julius Caesar," a soothsayer warns Caesar to "beware the ides of March." Well consider me your soothsayer as I warn you to beware "The Ides of March" (opening October 7 throughout San Diego).
All the packaging for "The Ides of March" is attractive. You have George Clooney and Ryan Gosling squaring off as hunky leading men, and Paul Giamatti and Phillip Seymour Hoffman bringing in the highest caliber of supporting acting (I'd call them character actors but that sounds demeaning even though they are clearly talented character actors). Then you have the promise of back room politicking at a time when American politics is divisive and elections are on the public's mind. On paper that sounds like the making of, at the very least, an entertaining film.
So what went wrong? I blame the lame, and thoroughly clichéd and predictable script by George Clooney and Grant Heslov. Everything that's bad or problematic in this film stems from the uninspired script. "The Ides of March" tells us nothing that we don't already know or suspect about politics, and then it tells us the familiar with a complete lack of style, passion, or insight. It also piles contrivance upon contrivance to drive home its hackneyed points about politics. (SPOILER ALERT) So not only does one candidate have an affair but he has an affair with an intern. And not just an affair but their one night stand leaves her pregnant. And it's not just that she's pregnant but that she's Catholic and pregnant and wants an abortion... By the end of the movie we feel like we've been pummeled.
The other big problem is Ryan Gosling's character. Gosling is the slick but idealistic staffer for Clooney's hopeful democratic presidential candidate. The problem is I never buy into his idealism. As played by Gosling, the character of Stephen Meyers always seems slick and savvy, and his claims about needing to believe in his candidate just sound like a canned quote for the media to make him seem like he cares. But if I don't buy into his idealism being genuine, there is no character arc for him and he can't grow disillusioned. Plus if he's as good as everyone says he is then he should have been smart enough to see how others are trying to manipulate him and how reporters feign friendship to get info from him. Gosling's blank slate acting working brilliantly in "Drive," but here it just flattens out what should have been a more complex character. Meyers is the crux of the story and if his character comes up short, so too does the whole film.
The only saving grace in the film is the work of Giamatti and Hoffman as two veteran campaign managers. They are totally convincing and give us a sense of what life on a campaign trail might be like and what someone needs to be good at that job.
Clooney directs the film in a bland, paint by numbers manner. Everything you expect is here and all tied up with a neat little bow. And it's boring! There is nothing here that we haven't seen in a movie before or read in the headlines of a paper (on Internet blog to be more current). I kept thinking of Michael Ritchie's "The Candidate," which had Robert Redford running for state senator. That 1972 film still has satiric bite and gives a better, more insightful window into politics than anything in this film.
There is so much going on in the world of politics right now that "The Ides of March" (rated R for pervasive language) should have been either a hard edged political drama or a savagely funny satire. But instead it lands in limbo, failing to have the depth of a solid drama and lacking the with and cleverness vital to a satire. Skip this one and rent "The Candidate," which still feels sharper and more contemporary than "The Ides of March."
Here's my list of political film winners.
Companion viewing: "The Candidate," "Tanner '88," "In the Loop," "Primary Colors"