Movie Review: David Gordon Green tries his hand at studio moviemaking with “Our Brand is Crisis”.
All but the noblest of intentions just barely redeem “Our Brand is Crisis”, a curiously slight awards season dark horse that’s at once refreshingly unconventional and also underwhelming in its third act. A knockabout character piece, a slightly confused political statement and a frenzied, high-spirited farce all rolled into one unwieldy whole, “Our Brand” — written by Peter Straughan, (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”) who knows this territory well, and directed by David Gordon Green, operating in a completely different mode then in this year’s lovely “Manglehorn” — satisfies to a point but eventually fizzles out. The early scenes, infused with devilish energy and finely calibrated, Sorkin-esque verbal fireworks, feel like a less focused, albeit more humanistic variation of Ben Affleck’s “Argo”, another film about Good Americans adrift in a foreign land.
“Our Brand” brings more texture and certainly more absurd humor than Affleck’s somewhat stilted thriller, but it’s also a vehicle that struggles to find a purpose beyond all the high-class bad behavior on display. The action centers around one “Calamity” Jane Bodine, (Sandra Bullock, lighting up the screen) a merciless political consultant with a latent drinking problem, issues with depression and an unfathomable penchant for strategy. She’s also got a crazy streak a mile wide, an asset that the cast and director Green employ in the film’s enjoyably unpredictable comedic scenes. When the film begins, Jane has been tapped by a team of fellow political spinsters to stir up support for an unpopular presidential candidate in Bolivia. Turns out, her old nemesis — a sneering Southern rascal named Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, always amusing but curiously absent here) — is riding on the opposing candidate’s coattails and it’s not long before Jane’s entire campaign dissolves into blistering, sometimes very literal chaos.
Some of this chaos is so nutty as to be strangely admirable, as when one of the president-elect’s T.V. ads — calling the budget shoestring would be generous –is violently interrupted by the untimely death of a llama. And some of it is oddly sophomoric, as in a prolonged sequence where a drunk Jane and co. try to run the opposition’s tour van off the edge of a cliff (admittedly, Green’s solid past work in “Pineapple Express” and “The Sitter” makes these scenes go down easy). Flip political comedy isn’t my favorite genre by a long shot and Green and the cast certainly elevate the material. Bullock gives a career-best performance, her earnest fortitude inflamed by fire and brimstone and good-old fashiond cunning. She’s magic to watch; a wrecking ball in high heels.
Abling her generously are fine character actors like Scoot McNairy, Ann Dowd, Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan and as always, director Green brings at least a studio-apportioned dash of homespun lyricism and definitely a welcome sense of lived-in authenticity to the early proceedings. But by the time the film’s dour climax sees our heroes fleeing the riot-engulfed Bolivian borders, “Our Brand” has arrived at a false denouement: one it hasn’t earned. What was enjoyably frivolous and spirited in the first half of the film becomes preachy and head-scratching in the second.
No doubt the phony, upbeat ending will go down like good medicine with stodgy Academy voters, but just sensing that the filmmakers wussed out of a potentially revelatory ending makes the loss all the more frustrating. “Our Brand is Crisis” has some big laughs, snappy dialogue and a few moments of honest-to-god insight, but its overall effect is muddled. Still, it’s interesting to see Green operate in studio mode and I’m sure there will be audiences for whom the film is a real treat. C+