DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. “Our Brand Is Crisis” is both the title of and a line from a new political comedy about American consultants who take over a Bolivian presidential campaign. The film is directed by David Gordon Green and stars Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton and Anthony Mackie. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: “Our Brand Is Crisis” has a lot of clunky touches, and the end is unforgivably cornball. But it's still one of the best political black comedies I have seen in ages. The pacing is fast. The talk is boisterous. And there are good screwball turns by, among others, Sandra Bullock as a high-strung political consultant on the loose in Bolivia and Billy Bob Thornton as her prince-of -darkness rival. The big reason it works, though, is that it's based on Rachel Boynton's little-known but phenomenal 2005 documentary of the same name. Boynton traveled to Bolivia to cover the activity of a high-priced U.S. consulting firm, Greenberg, Carville and Shrum, in the 2002 presidential race, and she had amazing access. She showed how American marketing techniques never previously used in that region steered a desperate country away from a charismatic young candidate with a message of change to a rich, arrogant former president who proved catastrophically out of touch. The documentary is often amusing, but Boynton frames the story as a tragedy, opening with bloody footage of an antigovernment riot a year after the election. The Hollywood version, directed by David Gordon Green, from a script by the British writer Peter Straughan, frames it as the personal journey of a fictional character, Sandra Bullock's Jane Bodine, a.k.a. Calamity Jane. At the start Jane, has been out of consulting for several years, following a traumatic mayoral race. She moved to a mountain cabin, stopped smoking, got sober and started doing pottery. Consultants played by Ann Dowd and Scoot McNairy lure her back with gobs of money and a challenge - can she convince the Bolivian people to elect an unpopular cigar-chomping oligarch named Castillo played by Joaquim de Almeida. At a mock debate run by Jane and colleagues played by Dowd, McNairy and Anthony Mackie, Castillo shows his true colors regarding the country’s indigenous population.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “OUR BRAND IS CRISIS”)
JOAQUIM DE ALMEIDA: (As Castillo) Experience is important because the problem…
SANDRA BULLOCK: (As Jane) Because the problem is that you’re slouching. Stand up on the level. Come on - youth, vigor.
ANTHONY MACKIE: (As Ben) New question. Senator, how do you respond to people who are calling for constitutional reform and greater representation for the indigenous peoples of Bolivia?
DE ALMEIDA: (As Castillo) Well, you do not use a blunt knife for surgery. These people are not educated.
BULLOCK: (As Jane) I'm sorry. I'm sorry. These people - are you kidding me?
DE ALMEIDA: (As Castillo) Enough.
BULLOCK: (As Jane) What, did we slip backwards?
SCOOT MCNAIRY: (As Buckley) All right, let’s take five. Everybody out. Vaminos. Vaminos.
DE ALMEIDA: (As Castillo) Did you hire me? Did you hire me? No, I hired you.
BULLOCK: (As Jane) Nobody hired me. I cannot be hired – oh, unless you mean - you know, in the technical sense. Then yes, I probably was hired.
DE ALMEIDA: (As Castillo) Let me make this clear to you. I am the one in charge. Do you understand?
BULLOCK: (As Jane) Oh, no, no, no. No, no, see, you’re not in charge.
DE ALMEIDA: (As Castillo) What did you just say?
BULLOCK: (As Jane) Maybe nobody is in charge. Maybe we’re all just rolling down a [expletive] hill, and there's no one at the wheel. I don’t know. So why can you not say what you're supposed to say? Where is there a problem?
DE ALMEIDA: (As Castillo) Because I'm not just a puppet for you to play with.
BULLOCK: (As Jane) Of course you are. Of course you're a puppet. We're just - we're just pawns.
EDELSTEIN: Jane’s cynicism is so over-the-top in that scene that it threatens to derail “Our Brand Is Crisis.” Who cares about the election if she doesn't? But the filmmakers invent an antagonist of near mythic stature, Billy Bob Thornton's Pat Candy who works for the leading candidate, a true populist. Thornton plays it sleek and leering. He could be Bogart's clammy, sleezy little brother. He takes a room across the balcony in her hotel where he can stare at her and psych her out. When she starts giving it back to him, psyching him out, the movie gets really good.
I love stories of politics as theater - the stagecraft, scripting, wardrobe choices and focus group testing of absurd commercials. We know this stuff happens, but it's still clarifying to see the curtains pulled back - to be reminded of how artificial the branding process is. Although the role of calamity Jane smacks of Sandra Bullock's branding - the smart but painfully self-conscious klutz who also suffers from melancholia – here, it's actually a complicated, even feminist, shtick. Jane is goaded by patronizing men into proving herself in ways she's not proud of. She comes to realize she's better than that. Her conversion involves an impoverished Bolivian teenager who believes, despite the angry effusions of his brother and friends, that Castillo is sincere in trying to bring about economic equality. That's naive to the point of idiocy and sets up a Hollywood ending that all but wrecks the movie. Here's my idea for a Hollywood ending. People are inspired to seek out Rachel Boynton's great documentary which throws a spotlight on one of America's least known but most consequential exports, sophisticated political flimflam.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.