Set during a crucial Democratic presidential race between Gov. Mike Morris (George Clooney) and a slightly more conservative candidate. The film’s protagonist is Morris’ hotshot chief strategist, Stephen Meyers, who believes in his candidate as a progressive who can get stuff done. Meyers, who works under campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is asked to meet up with a rival campaign manager (Paul Giamatti). He does so, in secret, which is a big no-no on top of another big no-no. Meanwhile, Meyers is sleeping with an intern (played by Evan Rachel Wood), and after intercepting one of her calls late one night, Meyers uncovers a dirty little secret that will rock his world. Politics is dirty, ugly, and icky, y’all! Marisa Tomei plays a cynical reporter always looking for a scoop between ‘friends’, Gregory Itzin is Wood’s influential father, and Jeffrey Wright is the Senator whose endorsement could make or break the election, depending on the candidate’s willingness to give him the cushy job of Secretary of State.
I was hotly anticipating this 2011 political film from director/co-writer/star George Clooney, and whilst it’s certainly better than his other 2011 offering, “The Descendents”, it’s actually a lot more disappointing. It’s clichéd, and plays very much like a serious-minded retread of “Primary Colours”, only not nearly as good and with no Oscar-winning Kathy Bates as a gun-totin’ lesbian trouble-shooter. It also has an ending that, no matter which way you interpret it (and there seems more than one option), isn’t satisfying or believable at all. But it’s definitely the similarity to “Primary Colours” (a wonderful, witty, and utterly convincing film) that bothered me. Both films feature an idealistic behind-the-scenes member of an American presidential nominee race coming to realise that the man he looks up to is a lot less of an heroic figure than he appears. Both films involve potentially damaging sex scandals. And unfortunately, this material, even if it weren’t so unoriginal, still feels far less applicable to the 2011-12 American political climate than it does American politics of the 1990s (The play it’s based on, is based on the Howard Dean campaign of 2004, apparently). Frankly, it’s all a bit useless, really, which surprises me given Clooney seems a fairly politically savvy guy. I know he’s a lefty who has nonetheless had his feelings of disappointment with Obama, and I thought for sure he and co-writers Grant Heslov (whose best work to me is still his role in “True Lies” as the other sidekick) and Beau Willimon (whose play the film is based on) would have something useful and interesting to say about the American political scene of today. Unfortunately, they’d apparently rather talk about sex scandals and dirty campaign tactics. Yawn. Been there, done that back in 1998. Besides, that subject matter doesn’t work nearly as well when we’re talking about a Democrat. The only people who care about a Democrat sex scandal are Fox News, so the film often feels like Clooney’s left-wing character was somehow initially envisioned as a Republican.
Even when the film tries to forge its own identity away from “Primary Colours” and say different things in the latter stages of the film, it still doesn’t quite work, especially the conclusion. **** SPOILER WARNING **** The ending seems to be able to be interpreted in a couple of different ways, but the vagueness is not the main problem (And if you take the title literally, perhaps there’s nothing remotely vague about it at all). None of the interpretations work for me. Either the Gosling character is going to get revenge on Clooney by revealing all to the press, or he doesn’t. If it’s the former, I simply don’t believe he would. He’d be so damn jaded that he’d quit politics altogether. It’s too much of a stretch to believe that this particular guy would go to these lengths just for revenge (and I don’t think he’d necessarily get away with it anyway), and in the process become everything he hates. If it’s the latter, then it still seems to suggest that he has become a sell-out, happy to blackmail his way back on the team (not by spilling the beans, but by letting Clooney know what he knows) and then keeping his trap shut about it, simply so that he can either get through all the policy ideas he has for the country when Clooney presumably becomes President. Or perhaps it’s so that he may eventually move higher up in the pecking order himself, taking Clooney out at a later stage (Which to me seems like a Hollywood fantasy version of what they think really goes on in politics. I doubt the real deal is as interestingly and convolutedly Machiavellian). I also think that if he doesn’t get revenge on Clooney, then he gets off way too lightly in my book, so it doesn’t work for that reason, either. In any of these scenarios, it asks the audience to believe that the Gosling character has become something that he has spent the rest of the film hating. Some people might go through this transition, but I simply refuse to believe the Gosling character be one of them, based on everything that happens beforehand, and considering he could just leave politics altogether. Maybe I’m missing something, but based on my understanding of the film, the ending did not satisfy me (even a line late in the film from Gosling to Tomei isn’t as revealing one way or another as many viewers seem to think). At the very least, character transformations are far too rushed for any of these scenarios to be convincing to me and it all came off as a bit silly, actually, and belonging to a different, less serious film. **** END SPOILER ****
So I had grave misgivings here that prevented me from liking the film all that much. Not to mention that the film hangs almost entirely on a contrived coincidence of the right person answering a phone at just the right moment or else the film would cease to exist. I hate that, because it shows a lack of intelligence and creativity on the part of the writers.
This is not to say that the film has no redeeming qualities. It is, in fact, an extremely well-acted film right across the board, even by the usually uninteresting Evan Rachel Wood. I find George Clooney to be a smug, ‘Richard Gere with talent’, who does well in roles that play to his strengths. That is, roles that allow him to be George Clooney-esque. He rarely stretches himself in performance, but if the role requires charm and/or smarm, he’s perfectly suited, as one can see in the very fine “Up in the Air”. Clooney’s good here, and even though I don’t like the guy much, I’d vote for him if he had the stance on the death penalty his character has here. It’s the best argument against the death penalty (and I am indeed against it) I’ve ever heard. I do have one quibble, though. Very early on I was already taken out of the film due to Clooney’s character’s refusal to come down definitively on the issue of religion. ‘Off-camera’ we are led to believe his character is an atheist (or more likely an agnostic), but his wishy-washy dancing around on the issue when publicly pressed just isn’t accurate to the small amount of knowledge I have of American politics. America is a largely ‘faithful’ nation, and no politician, Democrat, Republican, or Independent, would classify themselves as anything other than religious. It don’t matter what religion (well, maybe not Islamic), but there’s no way a politician in the US would ever fail to declare their religion of choice (And if they did, they sure as hellfire wouldn’t win Iowa, for cryin’ out loud- What?). If they’re an atheist, they’d lie. I just didn’t buy Clooney’s stance here, and I’m surprised none of the screenwriters picked up on this because it’s wholly inaccurate (Unlike Australia, I doubt America would ever vote for an atheist Presidential candidate. Not in a million years).
Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman are instant scene stealers in colourful parts, as is Marisa Tomei who even in her 40s and bespectacled, is freakin’ hot. Personally I think the film could’ve done with more scenes with these three, and even Clooney. Gosling has never really blown me away as an actor, but he’s always rock-solid and that is no different here.
Everyone is well-cast and does good work, but couldn’t stop my interest from coming and going. Overall, there are good moments and great performances, but with nothing fresh or appropriate to say and a troublesome ending, this is a massive disappointment. You want this film to be a lot better than it ultimately is, especially with the talent on board.