Friday, October 30, 2015

Our Brand Is Crisis: The result is distasteful

Our Brand Is Crisis (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

This seems to be the season for transforming well-regarded documentaries into starring vehicles for Hollywood A-listers.

Jane (Sandra Bullock) watches smugly as her candidate picks up steam in the upcoming
Bolivian presidential election, which prompts rival campaign "fixer" Pat Candy (Billy Bob
Thornton) to whisper another round of Sun Tzu-esque imprecations in her ear.
But whereas Freeheld mostly retains the soul and warmth of its 2007 nonfiction predecessor, while highlighting sensitive work from stars Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, Our Brand Is Crisis is an awkward, bewildering mess that benefits not at all from Sandra Bullock’s presence.

She barely tries, falling back incessantly on the half-amused sidelong glance that has become her go-to expression in far better projects. Much of the time, in fact, Bullock appears to have forgotten her lines, and instead attempts to “cover” by flailing aimlessly.

This doesn’t speak well of director David Gordon Green, apparently unable to handle his leading lady. Or maybe Bullock didn’t like him. Whatever the reason, she just isn’t present ... even when lovingly framed, front and center — and too frequently in tight close-up — by cinematographer Tim Orr.

Bullock is far from this film’s only problem. Peter Straughan’s script is a mess: His effort to transform this serious premise into a satire is half-assed at best, but most often just clumsy. And when satire fails — particularly if the topic is based on actual events — the result becomes tasteless. And offensive.

Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary of the same title tracks the jaw-dropping degree to which the American consulting firm of Greenberg, Carville and Strum (GCS) did its best to rig the 2003 Bolivian presidential election on behalf of its client, Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada, who’d held that top spot from 1993-97, but had come to be seen as arrogant and out of touch with the common people.

Yep, you read that correctly: American political consultants plying their dirty tricks to affect the outcome of a presidential election in a foreign country. Clandestine U.S. involvement in foreign politics is nothing new, of course; what made this particular case so egregious was the degree to which GCS made little or no effort to conceal its activities. Hell, these guys were proud of their work.

The charismatic James Carville was the beaming public face of GCS; that’s the role assigned here to Bullock, playing burned-out campaign fixer “Calamity” Jane Bodine. Anxiety and a series of high-profile failures sent her into isolated retirement; as this film begins, she’s tempted back into the game by the opportunity for one more match against her longtime professional nemesis, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, who apparently based his look on Carville).

Candy has been coaching Rivera (Louis Arcella), the photogenic, populist front-runner in the current Bolivian presidential campaign. Jane is brought in to work her strategizing magic on behalf of Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), dwelling in the polling cellar despite — actually, because of — having previously held the same office. The Bolivian people have experienced life under Castillo, and they want no more of him.

Bodine recognizes the uphill battle, but she has help, starting with former colleague Nell (Ann Dowd), who knows which buttons to push in order to get Calamity Jane on a plane to Bolivia. These two women respect each other; consulting team leader Ben (Anthony Mackie), on the other hand, needs to be persuaded that this obviously stressed and shattered newcomer can even feed herself, let alone function as a “brilliant” campaign strategist.

Their group also includes the aggressively smug Buckley (Scott McNairy), who views himself as God’s gift to brand advertising: a dubious boast, given the deplorable print and TV spots he keeps churning out. (This is one of the many disconnects in Straughan’s script: Satire or not, Jane would have fired Buckley before the sun set on her first full day with him.)

Lastly, we have LeBlanc (Zoe Kazan), brought in by Jane to handle research and dirt-digging. LeBlanc is a far more interesting character than Jane, because Kazan gives a far better performance than Bullock. The diminutive LeBlanc appears to be sweetness, light and innocence ... until she gets to work, at which point she demonstrates a calculating darkness that the Devil himself would admire.

Kazan’s amused and contemptuous smirk, each time somebody underestimates LeBlanc, is to die for.

Bullock’s Jane, on the other hand, just dies. Altitude sickness and apparent disinterest keep Jane on the sidelines far too long; we keep waiting — in vain — for Bullock’s spark and spunk to emerge. Apparently Jane is “studying” the situation, saving her comments until she’s able to rouse her equally disinterested client, played by de Almeida with the same dull, wooden lassitude that afflicts Bullock.

Castillo comes alive only while interacting with Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco), a young campaign volunteer who treasures the childhood memory of briefly meeting the former president during his earlier reign. When Eddie’s in the room, de Almeida gives us a glimpse of the human being beneath Castillo’s otherwise bland and mildly disdainful bearing.

Actually, it could be argued that Eddie is this story’s key character: the one who undergoes the most significant emotional arc. Instead, we’re apparently intended to root for Jane’s eventual epiphany: to recognize that when one does dirty work with soulless monsters such as Pat Candy, one inevitably turns into the same sort of monster.

But Bullock never sells that intended transformation. Just as Jack Nicholson was a batshit lunatic from the get-go in 1980’s The Shining, Bullock is wearily disheartened from the moment we meet her. There isn’t a character arc; she’s the same throughout. And her “same” is as dull and boring as Jane’s candidate.

Pacheco, on the other hand, is heartbreaking when Eddie finally perceives who and what these people are, and — more crucially — who Castillo really is.

As Satan’s emissary on Earth, Thornton is disappointing: a muted shadow of the flamboyant, cheerfully corrupting puppeteer that Candy should be. Like so many other characters in this story, he never really comes alive; he just sidles up to Jane, mutters sexually tinged innuendos and dire warnings into her ear, forever trying to get into her head, and then slinks away again. Repeatedly.

It grows tiresome, and merely reminds, anew, that Green hasn’t the faintest idea how to direct his actors ... because, let’s face it, a substandard performance from Billy Bob Thornton is a very rare thing.

We also get the impression that Thornton flew in for maybe a day, filmed a whole bunch of similar-looking scenes on the same two or three sets, and then blasted off again. He never feels like part of this film’s overall tapestry.

Green and Straughan also lose control of their film on more than one occasion, most notably during a night of drunken excess, when Jane winds up in her hotel room with Eddie, his brother Pepe (Octavio Gómez Berríos) and their friend Abraham (Luis Chávez). It’s impossible to make sense of this sequence, unless it’s intended to depict Jane’s effort to “bond” with Bolivia’s common herd.

Which points to this film’s biggest problem: It’s racist and patronizing. Aside from Eddie and Castillo’s campaign manager Hugo (Dominic Flores), all the Bolivian characters are one-dimensionally stupid, naïve and/or greedy. The recently released Rock the Kasbah suffers from the same problem, with its depiction of Afghans; both films are structured around “cultured and superior” white folks parachuting in to save “backward societies” from themselves. Ouch.

As also was the case with Rock the Kasbah, the setting and premise here are dangerously real-world serious: If one intends to satirize such situations, one had better do it well. Instead, Green and Straughan blandly conclude their film with Jane, Candy and their American colleagues heading out of town toward their next assignment, oblivious to the catastrophic carnage erupting in the wake of their campaign shenanigans.

This is funny?

Actually, though, that isn’t the full ending. Apparently wanting her character to appear more virtuous, Bullock appears to have demanded an inept, tacked-on “epilog” intended to demonstrate redemption: as blatantly cynical and transparently phony a Hollywood ploy as every back-room act these characters orchestrate during the course of the story.

The true crisis here, is that this movie got made at all.

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