Here's the first serious would-be contender of the season for Oscar nominations, "The Ides of March." And it's a solid base hit, but not anywhere near out of the park.
This drama directed, co-written and co-starring George Clooney is a well-intentioned cautionary tale about the corrupting nature of modern electoral politics. It's splendidly acted, with a top-notch cast that in addition to Clooney includes Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei -- Academy Award winners or nominees, all.
But it's simply not up to par with Clooney's other directorial efforts. "Good Night, and Good Luck" showed how to do old-fashioned Hollywood drama right, and even "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" had a zany, over-the-edge frisson.
Compared to some of the films Clooney's starred in lately, like "Up in the Air" or "Michael Clayton," this movie isn't even playing the same league.
The biggest downside of "The Ides of March" is that it's so familiar. There are elements from a half-dozen political films one can pick out, but mostly it seems like the love child of "The Candidate" and "Primary Colors." The crackling dialogue and gutsy performances barely keep ahead of an impending sense of redundancy, rolling in like an inevitable tide, reminding us we've seen all this before.
"Ides" is a well-executed retread that impresses without ever surprising us.
Gosling plays Stephen Myers, the wunderkind political operator who's the number two man on the presidential campaign of Mike Morris (Clooney). The Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, Morris is currently the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination going into the Ohio primary.
Morris' campaign manager Paul Zara, a savvy veteran played by Hoffman, is in cautious playing-not-to-lose mode, while Stephen thinks they should be taking the battle for ideas to the voters --and Morris seems to be listening to Stephen.
This includes several scenes of Morris giving speeches championing the type of liberal orthodoxy favored in real life by Clooney that wouldn't last a week in a presidential election (Morris is an atheist, who thinks young people should perform two years of mandatory public service in order to attend college).
These sequences come across as Hollywood types feeling their oats, and drag the narrative to a near dead-stop as the audience contemplates how much they agree or disagree with Clooney's leftist politics, rather than concentrating on the fiction.
On the other side of the chess board is Tom Duffy (Giamatti), campaign manager for Morris' primary opponent. He's down but not out, and Tom has some cards up his sleeve to put Ohio in their column.
Out of the blue, Tom calls Stephen and asks to meet with him, which turns into a fawning play to convince him to jump ship. Stephen isn't having anything to do with it, but that doesn't mitigate the danger of Paul considering it an act of disloyalty.
Then Stephen uncovers some unsettling information about Morris, causing him to doubt his own principles. Ultimately, he makes his own power play that could alter the political landscape.
Tomei has a small but tidy role as Ida Horowicz, a reporter for the New York Times. She and Stephen have a friendly, bantering relationship, but when the moment of truth arrives she makes it clear she's primed to cut his throat to get the big story. (It may not seem like it, but that's actually a compliment.)
More problematic is Evan Rachel Wood as Molly, a 20-year-old campaign intern who makes goo-goo eyes at Stephen. Wood does about as much as she can with the role, but it's written as a human plot device rather than a person, existing merely to make the story turn in one direction or another -- no matter that it requires the character to flip on a dime, absent any logic or reason.
The screenplay is by Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, based on a play by Willimon.
What "The Ides of March" does best is shine on a light on the grubby inner workings of the political machine, the petty rivalries and human failings hidden by the smooth, facile face of a campaign.
Clooney pans his camera from the candidate giving a speech in front of a huge crowd to the cramped hallway behind the stage, where workers and cronies literally have to step over each other as they track how every utterance is playing in real time.
It's a well-done film, respectable and serious. The actors acquit themselves with zest and skill. Unfortunately, "Ides" just has all the freshness of a outdated stump speech.
-- Christopher Lloyd is co-founder of TheFilmYap.com.