Bombing Politics

There’s a lot wrong with Our Brand is Crisis, which keeps it from great political satire

There is a documentary, now a decade old, called Our Brand is Crisis. George Clooney evidently watched it, liked it quite a lot, and decided use the story to make a fictionalized account of the same basic premise. In the documentary, political consultant James Carville is among those working on the campaign of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, seeking his second stint as president of Bolivia some five years after his first term.

Those pieces are in play in this year's Our Brand is Crisis, as well: there's a presidential campaign for a former leader of Bolivia and there's an off-putting, bald, Southern gargoyle looming in the shadows. The difference is that the Carville character, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), is working for another candidate, and he's squaring off against an old nemesis in political puppeteering, Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock).

Bodine is called "Calamity Jane" in political circles because of the outright mess she makes of opponents, her own clients, and often, her own life. She had been retired for six years prior to being summoned to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, to square off against Candy one more time. Her client, Pedro Gallo (Joaquim de Almeida), is 28 points behind in the polls only 90 days from the election, so maybe there's hope for Lindsay Graham and Bobby Jindal yet ...

There's a lot wrong with this movie. One would suppose that there would be a wonky edge to a film about hijacking a South American election with dirty tricks and various forms of shady gamesmanship, but aside from a couple quick jabs, the motivation and execution here are slapdash. Playing devil's advocate for a moment, perhaps it was believed a film about hijacking a South American election with dirty tricks and various forms of shady gamesmanship would not be multiplex-friendly, in which case—why make this movie?

Our Brand is Crisis straps comedy to a time bomb, hoping that neither actually lasts until the end. It wants to make a statement about personal and professional ethics (better handled by Clooney the producer in his terrific Michael Clayton). It wants to shake our collective national cage on democratic apathy. It wants us to recognize the absurdity of campaign season. And, bizarrely, it wants to wedge some jilted lover subplot between Bullock and Thornton into the proceedings, as if anyone wants to see such a thing in the first place.

Beyond all of that, however, there is some baseline competence at work. The script by Peter Straughan, when it's not struggling with how to engineer the above directives, has some tack-sharp dialogue, particularly for Thornton. And Billy Bob, revitalized after last year's Emmy-nominated TV extension of the Coen brothers' Fargo, still knows how to dominate a scene. He's one of the best in the business at operating in a complete vacuum, where it simply doesn't matter what anyone else is doing because you're never looking at them.

Bullock is fine, better than her usual, but not unforgettable. With the exception of de Almeida, who absolutely kills it, the rest of the cast darts in and out too frequently to make much of an impression. At one point, Bullock engages fellow campaign worker Anthony Mackie on why he's eating a Japanese breakfast. Who cares about his irrelevant backstory an hour into the movie?

Our Brand is Crisis is a lot like the candidate it wants to elect to Bolivia's highest office: this is a real fixer-upper. There are obviously some strengths here and with enough focus and attention, it could be a great political satire. It is, instead, barely recognizable as any of the three.

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