George Clooney was originally slated to play the scheming political strategist hired to salvage a Bolivian presidential candidate in “Our Brand is Crisis,” but her role isn’t the only transition on the screen. For over a decade, director David Gordon Green has shifted between melancholic character studies (“George Washington,” “Joe”) outrageous comedies (“Pineapple Express,” “The Sitter”), and unclassifiable hybrids (“Prince Avalanche,” last year’s “Manglehorn”). With “Our Brand is Crisis,” however, Green assembles the lively vision of ruthless political machinations with a sturdy hand and irony to spare, but mostly takes cues from his vibrant lead and the material itself.
Billed as being “suggested by” the 2005 Rachel Boynton documentary of the same name, “Our Brand is Crisis” takes that movie’s portrait of the marketing tactics behind the election of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and runs with it. As “Calamity” Jane Bodine, Bullock plays a complete fiction whose brilliant abilities to manipulate public opinion bring to mind Olivia Pope on television’s “Scandal” as much as any real world figure. Bullock, however, imbues her part with a ferocious energy that constantly elevates the straightforward material.
The opposite of the frightened survivor she played in “Gravity,” Bullock crafts a performance built around a series of endless confrontations punctuated by the occasional meltdown. Convinced to abandon retirement and head to South America by a pair of former colleagues (Ann Dowd and Anthony Mackie), Jane quickly goes about trying to help the moody Pedro Gallo (Joaquim de Almeida) rise in the polls. Along the way, she trades barbs with the longtime rival aiding Gallo’s opponent (a scenery-chewing Billy Bob Thornton, bald and sporting a Cheshire Cat smile in an embellished version of James Carville) and battles her own hard partying tendencies, bouncing back each time with a new scheme.
Aided by a trenchant young researcher (a low key, black-clad Zoe Kazan, whose presence generally serves as a running punchline), Jane walks her client through debate lines, publicity tours and other calculated maneuvers, while regularly bickering with the rest of her team. Green wisely cedes control to his actors, with Bullock as the main engine pulling the material along.
But neither his direction, nor any of the formidable performances, can do much to alleviate the bumpy road of Peter Straughan’s screenplay. Much of the speedy dialogue walks a fine line between incisiveness and overstatement. (“You don’t change the man to fit the narrative,” Jane announces when accusing the candidate of looking false for the cameras. “You change the narrative to fit the man.” It’s a shrewd thought, but feels almost as rehearsed as the actual campaign.
There are glimmers of Green’s penchant for physical comedy with some of the movie’s zanier sequences, including a wild night out that culminates with Jane’s arrest and a photo op with the candidate that goes terribly wrong when fists fly. Funneling zany humor into the mold of a political exposé, Green occasionally pushes “Our Brand is Crisis” into “Primary Colors” territory, though it never reaches for such a savage depiction of the campaign process. Still, the filmmaker nails a precise tone that holds the story together, with many scenes teetering on the edge of satire while striking a balance between sophistication and smarminess.
Jane’s crafty maneuvers make it easy to get swept up in the excitement of the campaign while forgetting its questionable purpose. One rousing moment, when Jane’s team arranges a televised appearance for the candidate in which he cries on cue, shows the extent to which she masterfully orchestrates a well-oiled propaganda machine.
Rather than arriving at a harsh reality check, “Our Brand is Crisis” sags into a blunt, earnest finale that seems out of sync with the material. But Green’s career has been nothing if not a series of ways to upend expectations, much like Calamity Jane herself, so the movie manages to fit its themes even when it falls apart.
“Our Brand is Crisis” opens nationwide October 30.