Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Big Review: The Ides of March

When I chose to review this for the November issue of ICON (where this first appeared), I thought the month's election buzz would make this film relevant. No dice. It's a lukewarm political thriller that couldn't sustain momentum into November, even with an all-star cast.

The other question some of you may ask: You have reviews of "Melancholia" and "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life," so why don't you write a lengthy review of one of those newer titles? Here's the truth: I didn't have a lot to say about those films. I'd rather write in depth on something a little older (e.g., "The Hurt Locker," "Up in the Air," "The Social Network") than be stupidly verbose regarding something newer.

Timing also plays a role. "ICON's" status as a monthly publication means I have to plan ahead. I try to make sure the reviews come out the month when the magazine is published. That's a bit tricky. As you might imagine some publicists balk at reviews being printed before the release date. Or I'll aim for movies released late in the preceding month. Another consideration: if the movie is being talked about high and low.

Translation, if a movie was released on November 4, there's a slim chance it's going to be reviewed in December. So you won't get to read 800 words on "Tower Heist," there are worse things in life.

This review originally appeared in "ICON's" and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)


Recently, I saw a reference to how George Clooney's political potboiler The Ides of March is a throwback to the more edgy, character-driven dramas of the 1970s, which is somewhat true. It's fine to honor elements of past cinematic styles and ideas if it leads to something new and exciting. That's how any artistic medium evolves. Otherwise, we'd still be watching silent movies featuring mustache-twirling villains.

Peddling the familiar as groundbreaking is when filmmakers get into trouble, and Clooney is up to his ears in it in The Ides of March.

The movie presents us with Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney, who also produced and co-wrote the script), a war hero and Democratic presidential hopeful who needs to win the Ohio primary to guarantee the nomination. Helping Morris is crafty veteran campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and young press secretary Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), a charming, self-assured hotshot whose star is rising.

Meyers is so coveted that the campaign manager for Morris' rival, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), courts the youngster, promising him that Morris won't win Ohio. On a roll, Meyers then beds an attractive intern whose father is the head of the Democratic National Committee. Since the intern is played by Evan Rachel Wood, who perpetually looks like she's about to star in a remake of Double Indemnity, it's a given that her presence spells doom. The intern knows Morris intimately, an arrangement that could end his political career. If that doesn't sink the candidate, his integrity will. Morris refuses to satisfy the demands of a senator (Jeffrey Wright) whose support could secure the primary. To make matters worse, a newspaper reporter (Marisa Tomei) learns of Meyers' clandestine meeting with the opposition, a juicy scoop that suddenly jeopardizes his—and the campaign's—future.

Based on Beau Willimon's play Farragut North, The Ides of March is so heavy on dialogue that we never feel the weight of these crises. Every one (and their revelations) involves tense conversations in dark, lonely places, which amounts to stock footage. As Meyers scrambles to save the campaign, and his livelihood, there's no sense of him discovering larger truths. Maybe if these didn't involve shifty motives and lying—problems most of us encounter on a daily basis—the movie wouldn't feel so gullible.

Or broad. A cast featuring three Academy Award winners is stuck playing caricatures. Tomei, Hoffman, and Giamatti play frumpy political lifers. Clooney is the good-looking, middle-aged, easily manipulated beacon of hope. Gosling, however, doesn't even have a model to follow. Clooney and his writers have Meyers crafty one minute, na├»ve the next. It's a classic example of screenwriters bending a character to fit the story's whims. And it's unnecessary: Gosling's forte is playing morally imperfect characters. That Clooney reduces Meyers' emotional crisis to youthful hubris and shock (Meyers, supposedly a PR pro, is stunned that a newspaper reporter isn't his friend) is an insult to Gosling's talent—and the audience's intelligence.

Artifice defines this film. Take away the all-star cast and the fortuitous release date, and you just have a lukewarm political thriller that doesn't tell us anything new. Clooney has garnered a lot of goodwill as an actor (Out of Sight) and as a director (Good Night, and Good Luck) for not just participating in a string of blockbusters that appeals to the Entertainment Tonight crowd. Still, I can't shake the feeling that he expects admiration for simply rubbing elbows with real life. As a director, Clooney needs to tap into how we're feeling now, when a youthful, energetic president hasn't delivered on his potential and Congress feels hopelessly and angrily divided. (False idols and promiscuous interns are so 1998.) There's a movie to be made from those emotions. The Ides of March isn't that movie because it can't comment on where we are now or where we are headed.

Take Shelter, now playing, and Melancholia, opening later this month in Philadelphia, speak more to the jittery mood of the populace. One is about a working-class guy tormented by apocalyptic visions. The other is a dreary, poetic drama centered around a planet on a collision course with Earth. Both are more honest than The Ides of March, which reveals that movie stars have finally learned that politics, like life, is not for the faint of heart

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