'Our Brand Is Crisis'
As part of his ongoing quest to make at least one film in every genre regardless of whether or not he’s suited to the material, director David Gordon Green has now delivered his version of a spin doctor satire in the mold of ‘Wag the Dog’ or ‘The Candidate’. Taking homegrown media manipulation and dirty politics to a South American setting, the movie comments on hidden U.S. imperialism and the smoke and mirrors of campaigning without ever really going for the throat.
‘Our Brand Is Crisis’ is a gentle breeze of a deadpan comedy featuring some strong performances, a visually stimulating setting, and at least the illusion of serious intent that never quite hits the lofty heights the filmmaker strives for. It’s a modest, if somewhat disappointing, success.
Loosely based on a 2005 documentary of the same title, Sandra Bullock stars as Jane, an expert and devious campaign advisor who has been in retirement for many years but is still remembered as a legend. She gets pulled away from her isolated home by a pair of hired-hand strategists (Anthony Mackie and Ann Dowd) and flies over to Bolivia to help manipulate a win for the country’s corrupt leader (Jaoquim de Almeida). Jane is not particularly interested in the gig and barely even speaks at first. She’s inspired to lead the campaign not because she’s passionate about her client, the election or the people of Bolivia, but because she gets to do battle with her arch nemesis, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), who’s running a competing campaign. Once she kicks into action, the director serves up a series of slapstick set-pieces and satirically silly campaign tactics in a sun-drenched exotic setting.
The film works best purely as a character comedy. Between his art house efforts and Hollywood comedies, Green was one of the directors and executive producers of the brilliant HBO series ‘Eastbound & Down’ and caries over some of that tone here. Specifically, that show (and particularly Green’s episodes) had a knack for playing absurd and horrible behavior with deadpan comedic glee and an oddly poetic visual aesthetic. Most of the big laughs in ‘Our Brand Is Crisis’ are broad and silly, involving unexpected animal deaths, wild drunken behavior, and good old-fashioned “man fall down = funny” gags. However, Green has his actors play it all completely straight, as if they were in a serious drama. He also shoots the Bolivian location through a Malick-influenced eye, which lends an odd beauty to ridiculous sights like Bullock mooning Thornton on a bus. It gives the movie an off kilter tone, often making stale gags feel fresh and unexpected.
Green also works wonders with actors and gets some excellent performances here. Bullock is of course the star of the show and the reason this project made it through the studio system. She’s excellent, and joyfully dives into slapstick and very undignified behavior while still playing straight as a fully formed dramatic performance. Bullock holds the movie together whenever it threatens to fly off the rails and always makes scenes worth watching.
She’s matched well by Thornton as her political sparring partner. The actor has a glint in his eye and spunk in his performance that he hasn’t displayed in years (possibly because he’s mostly a musician now, apparently). The rest of the supporting cast, including Zoe Kazan and Scoot McNairy, are all talented but don’t really get more than sketches to play. The movie is essentially a two-handed show. Everyone else is there to move the plot along and support the Bullock/Thornton battle.
The big problem with ‘Our Brand Is Crisis’ is the half-baked script that never really grows beyond a clever premise. Once the world is established, jokes are merely trotted out or repeated, whether they’re highbrow or low. There film has no clear thesis to its satire, which is a fairly important component of the genre. In the final scenes, Green attempts to switch gears into earnest drama as Jane finally sees the error of her ways, and it just doesn’t quite work. The preceding movie might be clever, but it’s far too simple and silly to suddenly expand into a heartfelt drama or meaningful political statement.
Still, at least the things breezes by entertainingly and makes attempts for content beyond the yuks. It’s another intriguing experiment for a director who specializes in such things, but not one of his triumphs. At least he and everyone else tried to do something different and succeeded much of the time. That’s more than can be said about most studio comedies, even the self-important ones.