Friday, March 1, 2013

The Ides of March

George Clooney's 4th outing behind the camera, 2011's THE IDES OF MARCH, might've been the trenchant political stunner it really wants to be if it had been made in an earlier decade. Say, the 1960s or earlier. Today, it plays like a stroll through half-read Newsweek articles and the drone of cable news. If you have followed current events with even the slightest frequency in the past 30 years, IDES' screenplay will seem distressingly old hat. A "what's the point?" and "tell me something I don't know" exercise, a 100 minute dose of the contemptuously familiar.

That could well describe many films. Hollywood recycles ideas without a second thought. To me, it's just as lazy when writers crib stories from real-life events, the latest scandal. Many episodes of Law & Order are guilty of this. Most often, the real life tale is more interesting than the fictionalization. It reeks of a lack of imagination. What separates a pointless exercise from something worthwhile is the spin, if you will, the creative teams put to it. 1998's PRIMARY COLORS, a much superior to IDES political indictment, uses the Clinton years as its blueprint and creates an incisive stare into the backstage intrigue of a presidential campaign without feeling contrived or merely torn from the headlines or a rehash of other politically minded films of the past like THE CANDIDATE.

THE IDES OF MARCH features Ryan Gosling as Stephen Meyers, a junior campaign manager for Pennsylvania governor Mike Morris (Clooney, undeniably well cast), who is attempting to win the Democratic Party's nomination for President. Meyers is "married to the campaign", a sharp, focused up and comer who's mastered the work ethic and learned to reconcile the less pleasant parts of the job. Sort of like when Helen Kushnick, Jay Leno's manager, states in the fictionalized THE LATE SHIFT:  "You want the steaks, but don't want to see the slaughter".

Meyers works for Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman, typically fine), a disheveled but very aware campaign manager who learns of Meyers' secret meeting with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the CM for Morris' rival. Duffy seeks to woo the young man over to the other campaign. Also in this stew are a duplicitous reporter for the New York Times named Ida (Marisa Tomei) and an intern in the Morris camp named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), with whom Meyers becomes involved and who harbors a Big Secret that will surprise absolutely no one.

THE IDES OF MARCH is dishearteningly obvious and predictable. It's not a satire, but rather a sober cautionary tale that just never quite distinguishes itself. Clooney's script (co-authored by his usual producing partner Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon) tracks every cliche to be found in stories such as this. Politicans sell their souls and switch allegiances. They also have illicit affairs. I wouldn't mind the layers of dust of familiarity if the story were told with more ingenuity. There's conviction to spare, yes, but it's all so dull. Yet, the film plays as if it were an American Classic.  Sometimes, when you try this hard., well..... And setting the entire story only within the Democratic sphere (including clips of Charlie Rose and only MSNBC as a news outlet), without exposing the "other side" makes this film feel that much more one dimensional.

The cast is well chosen. But as excellent as the actors are (Giamatti positively nails a scene late in the film as he spells it all out for Meyers), their work is not enough to set THE IDES OF MARCH apart from other, similar movies (or hundreds of TV programs). You may well find more depth and pointed insight in an episode of The West Wing.

It should be said, though, that Clooney's direction is often above average here. He's previously directed  films with interesting topics, but has yet to really impress or earn his spot among contemporary front-line artists like Soderbergh or Russell or Payne. In IDES, Clooney's visual sense is strong, and nods to '70s thrillers like THE PARALLAX VIEW are welcome. He and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael frame some quietly stunning shots here and there. Thriller elements of the screenplay sometimes work or at least keep your head from nodding.  But the thinness of this scenario defeats any pluses. I really wanted to like this movie.


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