Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Ides of March

Grade: 37 (C)

George Clooney is a big enough star that he’s found a way to manage his career remarkably well. Over the past decade, Clooney has worked with auteurs (Steven Soderbergh, David O. Russell, the Coens, Wes Anderson) and skilled craftsmen (Tony Gilroy, Jason Reitman), and few real stinkers have made their way into his filmography. But as with many big-name actors, Clooney has the desire to direct. And to his credit, he has made a good film in the past, 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck. But Clooney’s attempt at political relevancy with The Ides of March doesn’t leave much of an impression; 24 hours after viewing it, it’s difficult to recall much about it.

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is a Junior Campaign Manager for a Democratic presidential Candidate, Governor Mike Morris (Clooney). His boss, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a big, blustery type who knows all the angles to the political game and plays New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) like a piano. Meyers is a 30-year-old prodigy who believes the progressive Morris will truly make a difference in American lives. He even has a sexy intern (Evan Rachel Wood) after him. But there’s something rotten in Denmark, to borrow another phrase from the Bard. Morris’ left-wing views and likability frighten conservatives, who are willing to vote for the other man in the primary in order to compete with a weaker opponent. Morris doesn’t want to make a deal for a powerful senator’s endorsement if that man (Jeffrey Wright) wants to be Secretary of State. Meyers meets the opponent’s Campaign Manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), a direct violation of Zara’s code of loyalty. Duffy wants Meyers to jump ship to his campaign, and he has a good reason to think his man will win. And there’s something else. Something big enough to bring everything down.

March has the advantage of a terrific cast, but it throws its most fascinating characters into the margins. Wright’s calculating senator makes a strong impression despite being barely seen. Hoffman and Giamatti inject life into their scenes as two jaded old-timers ready to ruin lives in order to further their respective candidates’ campaigns. A braver movie would have been about them. But the film has a soft center in Gosling, charismatic in Crazy, Stupid, Love. and mythic in Drive but far too cool a cucumber to be an idealistic young man waiting to be corrupted. Or at least, that might be what he’s supposed to be. The film is not terribly lucid on what it wants its central character to be. One minute Gosling knows he’s part of a dirty game. The next minute he’s shellshocked when that game takes down careers. Wood, meanwhile, is hamstrung by a character that is so obviously part of an upcoming twist that it’s only a matter of waiting to see how ridiculous it is. And poor, poor Marisa Tomei, again saddled with a bum character after this year’s earlier embarrassment in Crazy, Stupid, Love. Tomei looks tired and resembles the worst stereotype of a weasel-like reporter. Every scene involving her brings down the film’s reasonably engaging energy.

Clooney is fine, both behind and in front of the camera. To his credit, he rarely over-directs his films, and lets the film breathe rather than spell out the big dramatic moments. With this and Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney has made two reasonably well made, politically inclined middlebrow films without melodrama. But Good Night, and Good Luck had the advantage of being based on real events and being provided interesting characters from the get-go. The Ides of March’s sub-Sorkin dialogue never crackles the way it should, very little feels at stake, and the film chooses to put a cipher of a main character in the middle of a thriller. Here is perhaps the most fatal flaw: Gosling’s character has worked on more campaigns than most men twice his age. Why, then, does he make the dumbest of all rookie mistakes in meeting with Giamatti? The film attempts to justify it as a matter of youthful cockiness and ambition, and Hoffman is given some juicy bits to explain why. Doesn’t work. It’s impossible to stay invested in a barely there thriller when its main developments spawn from something so ludicrous.

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