Monday, January 2, 2012

The Ides of March - Mozart for babies

The Ides of March is a smart film. It has smart actors, a smart director, smart dialogue, and a smart subject - the wheels within wheels of the political machine. You'll feel smarter just by watching it. But don't kid yourself that this is an in-depth look into this Machiavellian world, filled with penetrating insights. This is Mozart for babies. It will make you smarter if you watch it - but only because 99% of movies released these days will make you dumber just by being exposed to them. Even if its just the trailers. 

The chief pleasures to be gained from the film lie with the near-perfect casting. We have Ryan Gosling in the main role. Ryan is hotter than a fresh-f***ed fox in a forest fire right now. Then there is the actor's actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the candidate's campaign manager and another character actor stalwart, Paul Giamatti, as his counterpart. Both spin pure gold from their small roles. As the candidate we have the multi-talented George Clooney (who also directs). George sure looks the part and of course Clooney is fairly active in politics himself, comes from a political family and would probably make a crackerjack president if he ever ran for office. Not that he's dumb enough to do that. 

Then there are the women, delivering across the board despite having to make do with the bit parts as usual. Evan Rachel Wood is super sexy and vulnerable in a key role. Wood is a great, under-used actress (although in my personal opinion she is much more effective as a redhead). Marisa Tomei is fantastic as usual in a small part as a New York Times reporter, who seems to be the only journalist covering the presidential campaign, oddly enough. 

Unfortunately there just doesn't seem to be enough screen time for some of the cast, particularly Mr Hoffman. The vast majority of screen time is taken up by Ryan Gosling, which will no doubt make the ladies happy but what about the rest of us? Gosling is good enough in the main part, but whether he can carry a whole movie is open for debate, despite the fact that he seems to be snatching up the lion's share of primo leading roles at the moment. But this is not his finest hour. He seems a little under-done. He prefers to go at it low-key, but he's a little TOO under the radar here. We don't ever feel that he really cares enough about the candidate. He's just a little, dare I say it - wooden? Perhaps there weren't sufficient scenes with Clooney up front. Gosling is interesting to watch but he is better in some roles than others. His range is not quite there yet.

Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, the press liaison officer for a presidential candidate, Mike Morris (George Clooney). Stephen's job is to manage his boss's public profile, make sure the press are printing the right stories about Morris. In a world where a tightly managed public image is as vital as the air you breathe, Meyers has an extremely key role to play. And he's only 30 years of age! How he came to get this incredibly important job at such a tender age is never properly demonstrated. Instead we have one scene where the opposition candidate's campaign manager praises Stephen's abilities to the skies. OK then, done and dusted. Ummm.... no.

What conspires to keep The Ides of March from achieving real greatness is the severe lack of genuine insights and meaty dialogue. Any film that takes you behind the scenes of such a universally fascinating event as the US Presidential campaign should tell you something you didn't know before. If you're going to make a movie about the backroom dealings, insider trading and cut and thrust of the biggest political show of them all, then give us some insights into that world! Particularly now, when we are right in the middle of the Republican primaries, which are proving to be a real knock-down, drag out, fight to the finish, with no clear front runner. The timing is perfect. Ides of March is extremely topical and offers a great opportunity to throw some light on this world.

But we are never shown how it all works. The detail is sorely lacking. There's just a lot of mumbo jumbo about numbers and polls. Come on! Surely they could have given us some juicy tidbits on how press officers keep their boys looking nice and shiny despite legions of journalists all digging for the dirt. It must be a herculean task, but Gosling never even breaks a sweat. He's as cool as a cucumber the whole time. No over-flowing ashtray, no polystyrene coffee cup graveyard cluttering his desk, no peptic ulcer.

From what I understand, US presidential campaigns are fast-moving, back-breaking, extremely stressful affairs. In Ides of March it feels more like someone is running for town mayor rather than the biggest job of them all. For a better idea of what a campaign is really like, I highly recommend Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, a classic of its kind and one of Thompson's finest efforts. It may seem a little dated, but there is so much in there that is still totally relevant to today's political world. And its hilarious to boot.

The one 'insight' that Ides of March manages to deliver is that politics is all about compromise. Duh! Robert Redford and Michael Ritchie already nailed that all the way back in 1972 with the highly effective minor classic The Candidate, which Ides of March is clearly heavily indebted to. But what we want in today's super-cynical and savvy world is to know HOW it all works. THAT would make for a highly entertaining movie. Unfortunately, it isn't to be found here. Perhaps if it had been David Mamet or the late and much-lamented Sidney Lumet at the helm of Ides of March it would have achieved greatness. Lumet's pacy, talky procedural thrillers like Network, The Verdict, Night Falls on Manhattan really gave you that 'fly on the wall' feeling. You felt like you were seeing things the way they really are. Not a movie-makers 'idea' of how things go. And Mamet's bust-a-gut laugh out loud spoof of political spin-doctoring Wag the Dog also had that ring of authenticity, outrageous as it was.

Although The Ides of March is a perfectly competent, and, like I said, smart movie it could have been so much more. Unfortunately the script has to take the blame here. In this case, less is definitely not more.

No comments: