It's hard not to be disappointed with a film that bears the names of George Clooney and Grant Heslov as producers and Sandra Bullock along with Billy Bob Thornton as co-stars when all it can really manage to do is entertain rather than ever become the truly engaging and thought-provoking motion picture it's desperately trying to be.
Directed by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, George Washington), Our Brand is Crisis has landed a late October spot in movie theaters for one reason and one reason only - it was intended as Oscar bait.
As Oscar bait, Our Brand is Crisis unquestionably fails.
As nothing more than a couple of hours of pure entertainment, Our Brand is Crisis has enough laughs and enough witty and sarcastic barbs between Bullock and Thornton fans to please fans of both performers. "Suggested" by a 2005 Rachel Boynton documentary by the same name, Our Brand is Crisis patterns itself after that films examinatin of the marketing tactics that led to the election of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to the Bolivian presidency. In this case, the film centers around the fictitious "Calamity" Jane Bodine (Bullock), a master manipulator of public opinion whose extraordinary rise to the top of the cutthroat world of political spin doctors and the empires they create and destroy was followed by an equally extraordinary fall from grace and "retirement" to an isolated cabin where she makes pottery and attempts to find the zen within.
When two former colleagues (played by Anthony Mackie and Ann Dowd) come calling, Jane is pulled back into the political universe to help salvage the struggling campaign of Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) for Bolivia's presidency. Most known for having briefly been Bolivian president years earlier before being swept out after having soldiers open fire on a group of college-age protestors, Castillo is 28 points behind with 90 days until the election and his gruff exterior isn't playing well to a Bolivian populous desperate for real social change.
As it turns out, Pat Candy (Thornton) is the key marketing mind behind the campaign of Castillo's key rival in the election and the election's wide favorite, Rivera. Candy, who had more than a little bit to do with Jane's rapid downward spiral, is played with a deliciously smarmy spirit by Thornton, who does much more with the character than appears to be actually present in the fairly straightforward dialogue from scribe Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Indeed, that's very much the case for a good majority of Our Brand is Crisis - it's a much better film than it deserves to be thanks to the energetic and entertaining performances of both Bullock and Thornton, who are awesomely evil together and quite a bit of fun even when they're apart.
There's an awful lot not to like about Our Brand is Crisis, but Bullock and Thornton are so good here that you like the film and its mostly unlikable characters anyway. Castillo, currently a Senator and prone to both verbal and physical outbursts, never for a single moment radiates the kind of presidential charisma one expects from a potential national leader yet in the hands of Calamity Jane he becomes almost the "anti-candidate," the kind of guy you may not like but you want him by your side during a crisis. Indeed, crisis is the operative word here as Jane builds the campaign around the idea of a manufactured crisis of sorts and suddenly makes a win more than a little possible.
It's a shame that Bullock finds herself in such an ordinary film, because you can just sense that she's ready to do something extraordinary here. Calamity Jane is an inspired firebrand with passion and purpose galore, yet she's beautifully portrayed by Bullock as a flawed human being who, even as the film's hero of sorts, isn't exactly likable and whose occasional meltdowns feel genuine even if they're not exactly well developed.
The film wastes a couple of genuinely good actors in Zoe Kazan, as the political "researcher" LeBlanc, and top-notch character actor Scoot McNairy as a sort of media dude whose presence never really means much.
The presence of George Clooney and Grant Heslov as producers is pretty much proof positive that more was intended for Our Brand is Crisis than actually happens. While Clooney certainly isn't above involving himself in purely entertaining flicks and it goes without saying that Bullock has attached herself to more than her share of comedy drivel, Our Brand is Crisis has enough high quality ingredients that we should have ended up with a much tastier finished product. Our Brand is Crisis is consistently entertaining, though it never really engages emotionally or intellectually. The film is completely and utterly predictable and it's hard to imagine that even a film novice couldn't figure out exactly where it's going within fifteen minutes of the opening credits.
By the end of Our Brand is Crisis, it becomes readily apparent that Bolivia deserves a much better president than it is about to receive. As I left the theater, I found myself thinking that Bolivia also deserved a much better movie.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic