Film Review: Our Brand is Crisis (★★½)

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our_brand_is_crisisI’ve long been anticipating filmmaker David Gordon Green taking a leap towards the Oscar hopeful mainstream. He’s one of the most interesting directors in the business, so if you pair him with prestige material, the results should be outstanding, right? Well, in the case of Our Brand is Crisis, a poor script torpedoes some solid performances and effective direction on the part of Green. You can see why this project has so much potential, especially considering how George Clooney and Grant Heslov originally had this as one of their vehicles. They remain producers, with the lead role now being played by Sandra Bullock in a gender swap. Sadly, Bullock is one of the few successes here, as so many other elements are just half developed. Our Brand is Crisis doesn’t know if it wants to be a comedy or a drama, a political satire, a look at South American corruption, an expose of sleazy campaign managing, or something else entirely. By taking pieces of all of those sources, it really winds up being about nothing. Certain interactions between characters are solid and the cinematography is strong, but far too often you feel underwhelmed with how it all comes together. Our Brand is Crisis is barely decent, and that’s a big disappointment.

A dramatization of the 2005 documentary of the same name, the film looks at the dirty dealings in getting a candidate elected to office. Once a big time political operative, Jane Bodine (Bullock) flamed out, got the nickname “Calamity Jane”, and essentially retired. She’s lured back into the game by Nell (Ann Dowd) and Ben (Anthony Mackie) by the promise of getting to take on her rival once again, fellow campaign operative Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton). The job they want her help for? Getting Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), the unpopular former President of Bolivia, elected once again even though he’s trailing badly in the polls to Candy’s candidate. Even though her guy seems the exact opposite of what this struggling South American nation needs, the prospect of beating Candy inspires Jane to get out of her funk and attempt to kick some political ass. What happens is a matter of historical record, but it’s what goes down after the election that shows the ambition that this flick has. Unfortunately, it also hammers home just what a mess it ultimately is in the end.

Our-Brand-is-Crisis-(2015)-posterThe acting is uniformly good here, but only Sandra Bullock really busts out with anything memorable, which means it’s pretty limited in how it can service the story. Even so, she’s not blowing you away, just anchoring the film with one character you actually care about. This isn’t Bullock’s best recent work or anything of the sort, but it fits in as a top tier performance overall for her, especially since early on it almost seems like one of her mid career comedies. I’d have been curious to see what Clooney would have done with the role, but the script tinkered enough so that this doesn’t feel like Bullock playing a full on male written character (though the script doesn’t do her many favors). Billy Bob Thornton is solid as the competition who has a past with Jane, but so many of his scenes are sprinkled with him making sexual overtures at her that it limits his effectiveness. Thornton is charismatic in an oily way though, I give him that. Ace character actors Ann Dowd and Anthony Mackie make the most of thinly written roles, while the always reliable Zoe Kazan and Scoot McNairy are forced to do the same, but with even less to work with as fellow members of the campaign. Joaquim de Almeida is good but underused, while the rest of the cast includes Reynaldo Pacheco, among others.

I’m not sure why this appealed to David Gordon Green. An immensely talented director, he must have saw something in Peter Straughan‘s script, but this dramatization of Rachel Boynton‘s documentary never really gets to engage. To be fair, Green does his part, giving the actors room (though the material never lets them really play) and utilizing longtime DP Tim Orr in a wonderful way. Orr has almost every shot in tight on a character’s face, which is super intimate, but you just don’t care. Our Brand is Crisis could have been great with tighter writing or a looser take on the material (just look at what Clooney and Heslov did with The Idea of March, for example). Honestly, maybe Green should have just written this himself.

When you get right down to it, there are things that work in Our Brand is Crisis and the whole thing is very watchable. Sadly though, that’s pretty feint praise, so I can’t go ahead and recommend this one. I’m usually a Green defender, and while he’s not to blame really here, this is a big disappointment for me. Bullock fans will like this potentially as a star vehicle, but Oscar junkies will undoubtedly find that this just comes up short. Our Brand is Crisis isn’t anything to ignore, but it’s also nothing to go out of your way for either.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!