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Hard to Care about This Creaky Crisis

Hard to Care about This Creaky <i>Crisis</i>

DVD Release Date: February 2, 2016
Theatrical Release Date: October 30, 2015
Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)
Genre: Comedy
Run Time: 107 min.
Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Joaquim de Almeida, Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Reynaldo Pacheco, Zoe Kazan

When you think of actress Sandra Bullock, what movies of hers come to mind first? Her dramatic roles in The Blind Side, Gravity or Crash? Or her comedy hits like Miss Congeniality and The Proposal? She’s succeeded in both kinds of films, although not all of her comedy projects have panned out. All About Steve (2009) scored the actress an infamous Razzie award—which the good-natured actress showed up in person to accept.

Now, what do you think of when you hear the name of director David Gordon Green? You likely draw a blank, but Green has been a filmmaker to watch since his early independent dramas like George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003) before veering toward comedies starring better-known actors: Pineapple Express (2008) with James Franco and Seth Rogen, Your Highness (2011) with Natalie Portman and Franco, and Prince Avalanche (2013) with Paul Rudd.

Our Brand is Crisis, a fictional story directed by Green and "suggested by" a 2005 documentary, straddles the line between comedy and drama uneasily, never pushing hard enough to define the type of story it’s trying to tell. Like a lukewarm cup of coffee, it leaves a lot to be desired.

"Calamity" Jane Bodine (Bullock) is a campaign operative who, taking a page out of Lyndon Baines Johnson's presidential campaigns, has learned how effective it can be to define political opponents through tough ads and whispered innuendoes. Her tactics have succeeded in getting her candidates elected, but that success has come with a personal price, leading to a stay at the Betty Ford Clinic.

Now sober after taking her last drink, she's lured back into the political game. This time, it's a presidential campaign in Bolivia for Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida, Fast Five), who needs help in overcoming a huge deficit in the polls. Will what worked for Jane's campaigns at home be as effective overseas?

It would be a spoiler to reveal the answer, although you can probably guess how things turn out. Once Jane forces her fellow campaign staffers to yield to her demands to go negative, Castillo's standing in the polls begins to rise. A key TV interview (with a well-timed shedding of a tear) and a declaration of a national crisis (which explains the film's title) help Castillo overcome public perceptions that he's an elitist bully. Instead, he takes on the mantle of savior who will fix the country's problems.

The political dimension of Our Brand is Crisis is, not unexpectedly, cynical, but who, in today's media-saturated, 24/7 news society, needs to be sold on the idea that negative campaigning is effective? Or that consultant-tweaking can bear fruit in the battle over a candidate's public perception? There's nothing surprising or new in Our Brand is Crisis, and that means the story's drama is decidedly lacking.

What about the comedy? It's strained, with much of it coming from the lascivious Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, The Judge), a longtime campaign-consultant rival now working for another Bolivian presidential candidate. Candy and Jane share a past, the details of which are left largely unspoken, and Candy knows how to get under Jane's skin. However, his sexual innuendos are more creepy than amusing, and while the actors don't lack chemistry, their relationship never develops beyond a few pointed comments and dumb campaign pranks.

The problems with the film aren't in the performances, which are hard to fault and even enjoyable at times. Thornton looks like a steely, do-anything-to-win consultant, with expressions that mask the devious thoughts bubbling up in his brain. Jane is more complicated. As played by Bullock, she's a mess, but she's supposed to be a lovable mess. However, if we're to admire her campaign smarts and root for her victory, why should we want her to have a change of heart about her profession, which the film is clearly indicting? Our Brand is Crisis wants it both ways, and it offers up a resolution that feels less than convincing.

On a surface level, the film is not difficult to sit through. However, if it's not going to give us any insight into political campaign tactics, couldn't it at least give us characters to care about—or a more insightful story? Like a poorly managed presidential campaign bereft of new ideas, Our Brand is Crisis deserves to lose when audiences get to vote (with their wallets) on which movie to see next.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Language/Profanity: Lord's name taken in vain; multiple uses of the f-word; several uses of foul language; “set of balls”; a man can be heard urinating while on the phone; crude terms for female sex organ
  • Drinking/Smoking/Drugs: Jane is a recovering alcoholic; several scenes of smoking, and a shot of cigarettes burning in an ashtray; discussion of a story about a candidate's cocaine-addict daughter that was leaked to the press
  • Sex/Nudity: Jane moons passengers from a passing vehicle; Pat tells Jane he’ll be fantasizing about her
  • Violence/Crime: An animal is violently struck by a car; Jane is jailed for assaulting Pat, although the act is more in the nature of a prank than truly threatening; reckless driving; Jane says she'll kill herself if she loses the campaign
  • Religion/Morals/Marriage: “Truth is relative”; a character says he spent time in a Buddhist monastery; a character is shown praying

Publication date: October 29, 2015