David Gordon Green still remains an enigma of a filmmaker. Every time he’s got a new film, there are those (like myself) who close their eyes as soon as the lights dim, and make a little wish: “Oh ye mighty gods of cinema, let this be the Green who made the powerfully subtle and profoundly felt ‘George Washington.'” More often than not, the gods are cruel, and grant us the same Green who directed “The Sitter” and “Your Highness.” When he seems to set sail again, like with the wonderful “Joe,” the wind gets taken out by something mangy like “Manglehorn.” Now, we’re back in that familiar spot, asking where “Our Brand Is Crisis” fits in. It’s based on the eponymous documentary by Rachel Boynton, stars a couple of firecrackers in Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton as rival campaign strategists, and aims for the belly of the political beast. In other words, it has all the makings for Green to find that sweet-spot between drama and comedy, and make something special. Instead, we’re left with something exasperatingly bland and almost claustrophobically generic.
Bullock adds to her growing list of trainwreck characters with Jane Bodine, a political spin doctor nicknamed ‘Calamity’ for her daredevil ways of getting her clients elected. Whether he’s an honest man and will do a good job is a moot point. After a particular campaign got too ugly, Jane went MIA and moved away from politics, only to be pulled back into the ring by a couple of fellow colleagues (Ann Dowd and Anthony Mackie, outrageously wasted) when a new assignment comes in. Ex-president of Bolivia, Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), is behind by 28 points in the next elections, and has hired Bodine’s U.S. campaign consultants for help. Just as she’s about to decline the offer, Jane learns that her biggest rival, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), was hired by the opposition. Not only is this a second shot at restoring her notorious reputation, but also a chance to bring down her biggest rival. So, of course, she agrees.
In Bolivia, things look accordingly disastrous from the moment they land. Castillo is an arrogant, hard-as-nails, candidate who can’t get no love from his people, while his charming opponent keeps rising in the polls. Jane sits back and does nothing at first, watching her fellow teammates spin their wheels, and gets accustomed to the altitude (for some reason, she’s the only one so severely affected by this). But, an inevitable meeting with Candy, and a taste of his dirty tactics, spurs Bodine back into action. She starts giving the necessary speeches to get everyone thinking the right way about what their brand really is. In one of these inspirational speeches, she repeats how “there’s only one wrong here,” and that’s “losing.”
In fact, there are many, many, wrongs here, and losing might be at the very top. Peter Straughan, the same man who expertly adapted “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” co-wrote the highly original “Frank,” and most recently worked on the excellent mini-series “Wolf Hall,” has all the credentials to make a well-rounded and cliche-free screenplay. Instead, “Our Brand Is Crisis” has a mess of a script, replete with nonsense montages, a childish bus sequence that makes zero sense, and absolutely nothing we haven’t seen or heard before. You catch yourself wondering whether Straughan wrote this on a napkin while flying cross-atlantic, all while using Wikipedia to stuff in as many famous quotes as possible. The incessant use of quotes is some kind of running motif, you see, which would’ve perhaps held water if they were in an at least a semi-quotable film. Green’s direction isn’t much more inspired: a style that quickly turns garish through sheer pointlessness paves the way for a barrage of familiar emotional beats and intellectual platitudes.
The white savior element becomes a bit egregious towards the end, as well. All the locals seem completely lost when it comes to the politics of their own country, including the token ‘main’ local Eduardo (Reynaldo Pacheco). Without Jane and her team of American experts, the spirit of Bolivia is like the deflated football Jane sees in Eduardo’s ramshackle apartment. Castillo’s campaign starts to build steam, and his whole election appears to swing on a promise of an IMF referendum. In an effort not to spoil something stupendously predictable, there is a scene near the end that plays out as if all the people of Bolivia were born yesterday. I’m not accusing Green and company of blatant stereotypes or intentional underrepresentation, but I felt as if the real, critical, essence of the story’s human element got utterly smothered by half-measured attempts at entertaining and inducing laughter. The whole affair just ends up being one cry for attention after another, after another, until it suffocates your every sense.
It’s a real shame, too, because Jane Bodine is one of those strong female characters you’d see on the cover of a Bechdel test exam paper. The role was originally intended to be male, aimed for producer George Clooney to tackle, but Green saw no reason why the gender couldn’t be switched. Apart from a couple of fantastic Scoot McNairy moments, this decision is the only silver lining of “Our Brand Is Crisis.” Bullock does a fine job with the role, and shares none of the blame for the imbalanced and threadbare result on screen. Films like this never aspire to be “great cinema” in the cinephile-y meaning of the phrase, but they’re still meant to tell a good story, right? There was no way that was going to happen with a screenplay like this. “Our Brand Is Crisis” is bereft of any genuine insight into the nature of political campaigns, and its narrative is telegraphed from miles away. The best thing to come out of this is a re-appreciation for Boynton’s documentary, while in the case of David Gordon Green, the gods remain cruel as ever. [D+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.