The Sandra Bullock-starring "Our Brand Is Crisis," is an acidic, biting political satire that asserts the notion that marketing has taken over the democratic process. There's truth in that thesis, especially since the film is based on a documentary of the same name that captured the machinations of American political and branding consultants for hire during a 2002 election in Bolivia. For director David Gordon Green, it's a step in a new, more sophisticated direction, and for producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney, the film is an entry into their stable of slick political romps that are topical whether they are contemporary or not.
"Calamity" Jane (Bullock) is dragged out of self-imposed retirement by Ben (Anthony Mackie) and Nell (Ann Dowd), political operatives looking for a scapegoat as much as they are a ringer. They've secured a contract with a presidential candidate, Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), in Bolivia and are heading for parts South with a team including branding guru Buckley (Scoot McNairy). What actually gets Jane on the plane to Bolivia is the chance to square off with her longtime sworn nemesis, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), who's been enlisted by the competition.
Jane is a perfect role for Bullock's everywoman persona — she plays her as a bit of an idiot savant, rumpled, constantly clutching a half-eaten bag of salty snacks, outfitted in her ever present trench coat and glasses. She spouts Sun Tzu and Machiavelli quotes at random, but she's clear-eyed and not a sycophant, which allows her to see through the mess of Castillo's campaign. She claims the nebulous threat of "crisis" as their brand, and the tide starts to turn. When she launches all out war on their competition, it's personal more than anything else — she just wants to beat Pat Candy.
The team, and the film, harbor no starry-eyed belief in Castillo as a candidate — he's basically the Donald Trump of Bolivia, a billionaire who's been president once before. The people believe he will go running right to the IMF and plunge their country into a pit of globalized debt. He just might, but that's not the point for his campaign team, who can only see poll numbers. For Jane, it's a blood feud played out upon a national landscape that won't have any effect on her real life.
Much hay has been made of the fact that the lead role was originally written for a male actor, and it's to the film's credit (and writer Peter Straughan) that it never becomes about Jane's gender. Nor is it about the other political fixer's gender or race. They are all driven by the same craven political competitiveness that transcends their identities — for better, or probably worse.
Jane is a genius, but she's deeply flawed and complicated, struggling with substance abuse, mental illness, her own past regrets. That dark underbelly adds depth and dimension to the ironic humor of "Our Brand is Crisis." The team laughs, drinks and pranks each other to keep their own consciences at bay. Jane's real demon is her own existential terror.
The film is deeply cynical, and there's a fearlessness in that cynicism. This is undermined in the eleventh hour by an implausible change of heart that feels tacked on to please focus groups and give the film a Hollywood ending. While Jane gets the hero's redemption, she's far more interesting when she's not being a hero.
"Our Brand Is Crisis" — 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language including some sexual references)
Running time: 1:47
Sandra Bullock, like any actor, shines when you cater to her strengths. She has never been a particularly dynamic performer, tackling each part with the same charming intensity, and there’s nothing wrong with willingly falling into the open arms of the public. There’s a consistent undercurrent of playfulness, vulnerability, and bite that connects each of her roles, and Our Brand Is Crisis, which sees her dancing on the edge of a character teetering somewhere between Bullock’s persona and the grit of darkness, attempts to pair her with something different, but ends up matching her signature charisma to a script that delivers little more than what we expect.
Our Brand Is Crisis is not a bad film. In fact, for the majority of its rather short 85-minute runtime, it’s enjoyable, and that’s all it needs to be. Bullock, an A-list darling of the people for the better part of 20 years, thrives with her inscription of likeability at the heart of this featherweight political dramadey, which has a bit more fun than it should as it navigates the already turbulent waters of white Americans meddling in foreign politics.
Bullock plays Jane Bodine, a famed consultant notorious for her cutthroat tactics and public meltdown that forced her to withdraw from the public eye. She’s brought back from the shadows, however, by the team (Ann Dowd, Anthony Mackie) behind the campaign of a Bolivian presidential candidate, Senator Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida). Bodine is hesitant to make the transition, as Castillo is far behind in the polls and is inherently unlikeable, but a check is a check, and she has a rough time adjusting. She spends the first 30 minutes of the film nauseous from the rapid altitude change, snacking on junk food, and disinterested in the task at hand. Once she gets into the swing of things, after realizing that a rival candidate’s every move is controlled by one of her own nemeses, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), it gets personal, and the film’s pacing (and the stakes for the viewer) rise as Bodine’s interest and passion (as well as Bullock’s performance) light the fire the film needs to get rolling.
Bodine is the kind of woman who knows her shit, twisting scandals into gold and manipulating her opponents to seem like fools on trial in the public court, but also thinks nothing of mooning her opponents from Castillo’s campaign bus just to have the last word. The character isn’t well-drawn inside the lines, but that’s not what this film is about. It’s about getting Bullock in her element, giving her material she can really run with, and delivering a performance that gives the audience what they want: the Sandra Bullock show.
Despite dipping its hand into a potential well of dramatic mirth surrounding politics and the merciless American political mentality, Our Brand Is Crisis feels light and airy. It’s perfectly happy to have Bullock, savoring the showy elements of her character for what they are, never asking more of its lead than to show up and do what she does best: entertain. It often has way more fun lapping up all the juicy parts of Bullock’s performance than giving us something tangible to chew on. It doesn’t have much to say, but it does create palpable tension in flashes, most notably between Thornton and Bullock, who share a screen chemistry that sizzles and pops in calculated measures, giving the film a much-needed emotional charge just when things start getting a little out of hand (this is a film, mind you, that features Bullock and company throwing back shots, firing late-night take out from of a makeshift slingshot made of bras and bed liners, and a car-on-llama collision, all for comedic effect).
Warner Bros. wisely attached a director with the sensibilities of someone like David Gordon Green, whose hand lifts the film from feeling too cheap in moments it could have easy unspooled. While his filmography is tonally all over the place (in the best way possible) and despite the film’s subscription to star power and flashy writing, Our Brand Is Crisis benefits from Green’s desire to go smaller when it comes time to call us in from the spectacle that’s happening outside, giving the film a pace and a rhythm that works from start to finish.
When the film reaches its climax and the election ends, we feel nothing close to the feeling we get when protagonists triumph over obstacle, but only slight satisfaction that we got to witness the fireworks as one ruthless, grimy character wins out over another. At this point, attention must be paid to the journey. Has anything changed since we first met these characters? Was it worth throwing my weight behind crooked, entitled politicians taking advantage of the hopes and emotions of a poor, vulnerable public and the Americans who support them for money? Our Brand Is Crisis is too busy swinging around on the monkey bars to answer those questions, but that’s not to say it doesn’t snap its jaws. In its final moments, Green begins weaving a tapestry, but it feels too little too late. It is critical in its closing minutes, and ponders the impact of Jane’s actions not only on herself, but on the Bolivian community as a whole. It critiques the system, however slightly, but this is a film far more interested in the pageantry of momentary stimulation than weighing down the party with too much heavy talking.
Ultimately, what we end up with is a romp, and that’s typically ok, except when the course is rerouted with mere minutes left to go, cutting us lose to linger in the credits with the bitter tease of a much better film on our tongue.