OUR BRAND IS CRISIS is an oft told tale of political machinations played in the vacuum of the zero-sum game that is the electoral process in modern times. In it, we are reminded, candidates are products, issues are what the spin-meisters dictate, and the public is there to provide the score card used by which opposing political consultants squash one another. The original and award-winning 2005 documentary, which provides the fodder for this fictionalized narrative, went by the same name, and provided the insight of watching American consultants use their tried-and-true American tactics in an overseas location, specifically a Bolivian election. The narrative it has spawned 10 years later provides a starring vehicle tailor-made for star Sandra Bullock’s talents as America’s disheveled sweetheart. Alas, it does not provide the necessary focus for it to be about much of anything else, aside from a few requisite swipes at the cynicism of entrenched politicians and those who assure their continuation in power, and a few sops to finally understanding the harm all that meister-caliber spinning can do.
Bullock is “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a crack political consultant with a penchant for winning big or cracking up even bigger. Hence the nickname. After a particularly bad crack-up, involving a stint in rehab and another in an even more clinical setting, she has removed herself to the mountains, where she spends her days crafting pots with putative healing powers. Into her peaceful isolation come Nell and Ben (Ann Dowd and Anthony Mackie). They are there to offer her a job in Bolivia helping a former president return to office after 15 years. He’s behind in the polls, and no one has much faith in that changing significantly, but the fee for trying is too good to pass up, and, as Nell explains to Ben on the long ride to Bodine’s cabin, the retired consultant is an expendable.
Of course, she proves them all wrong. Finding her groove, thanks to the needling of the opposition’s imported American consultant (Billy Bob Thornton as a somnambulant Prince of Darkness). Their longstanding personal and professional rivalry inspires Jane to heights of creativity. Starting with an electoral issue that hammers on the eponymous word crisis, moving on to llamas with good posture, and then diving into an arsenal of dirty tricks both brazen and inspired, she takes the raw clay of an unlikable autocrat (Joaquim de Almeida) with less good hair than his opponent, and molds him into a candidate that doesn’t evoke warmth, but does evoke strength.
From there it is a standard Bullock movie. Which is not to say she does not acquit herself with aplomb as the moves through the tropes: staggering through her altitude sickness upon arriving in Bolivia with a bedraggled shuffle while clutching an omnipresent bag of chips; mooning the opposition’s bus to the general applause of her crew and candidate; being unable to get over that perfect hair sported by the opposition candidate; delivering her lines with an unapologetic intelligence that is willing to be brittle instead of adorable. Bullock is both a pro and a star, and if sheer star power could have carried this film, she could have done it. Not even she, though, can work with tones that shift precipitously and for no readily discernable reason. Just as we are settling into the pleasant jibes of a satire, things turn darkly earnest, or earnestly hopeful, or just plain befuddled. One dare not get attached to any one idiom for fear of it being wrenched away mercilessly and replaced with something worse.
The most intriguing thing about OUR BRAND IS CRISIS is how it could have gone so wrong. Screenwriter Peter Straughan has written such masterpieces of subtle power as the 2011 adaptation of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and television’s Wolf Hall. David Gordon Green, a man who moves between quiet masterpieces of indie filmmaking and the raucous Hollywood hi-jinks of PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, has made a religion of creating compellingly nuanced characters. BRAND provides a wickedly exploitable premise, and after a strong start that features Bullock returning to the real world after self-imposed isolation, quickly embraces the law of entropy, wandering off in several unrelated directions as dictated by the rules of chance and strange attractors.