Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Ides of March

When I first saw the poster for Ides of March, several things came to mind.  First of all, I thought that was a pretty cool poster; it can be disarming how much two handsome men can fit the same mold and yet look different. 
The second thing I noticed was the stellar cast; three Oscar winners, some great character actors, a rising star and...Evan Rachel Wood.  Finally, I noticed the release date and the filmmakers; Fall is typically when most Oscar bait comes out and George Clooney directed and co-wrote this picture with Grant Heslov, his co-writer on Good Night, and Good Luck.  This kind of looked like Clooney trying, once again, to make Important Movies with Capital Letters; while I like Good Night, And Good Luck and Syriana, neither one was much fun to watch.  Great dramas don't have to be fun, but if you're aiming for greatness, you've got to hit it out of the park, or else you underwhelm your audience.  Would Ides of March finally be Clooney's political movie masterpiece?
Flag pin: check!  Political importance: pending

Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) is running for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States against Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell).  Stephen (Ryan Gosling) is the idealistic and instinctively brilliant junior campaign manager for Governor Morris; the senior campaign manager is Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has experience and political savvy.  Both candidates need to win the official support of crazy ass Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), who controls enough delegates to sway and clinch the nomination for either candidate.  Pretty cut and dry so far, right?  Stephen is a rising star who both legitimately believes in his candidate and is getting to show off how awesome he is, every time Governor Morris says or does something clever in public.  As the campaign heats up, though, both Stephen's idealism and his fantastic career suffer enormous setbacks.  Can he fight back and save what is rightfully his, or will he have to sacrifice one for the other?
Production note: there are a lot of corded phones in this flick

If there is one thing that The Ides of March is not lacking in, it is acting talent.  I kind of have a thing for Ryan Gosling right now (ever since I saw Drive), and he has a good handle on the whole charming-but-occasionally-coldly-manipulative thing here.  George Clooney turns in a similarly effective performance; it was kind of cool seeing him turn on the "public face" charm and then, in private, have a different attitude.  Both men were good, but not great, in similar roles.  What impressed me most in this film were the dueling performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, who played Senator Pullman's senior campaign manager.  Both turned in terrific performances; I really liked Giamatti's resignation toward being a spider-like bastard and Hoffman's uncharacteristic explosion took me by surprise.  The rest of the cast was solid, but nothing extraordinary.  Jeffrey Wright gave another good small performance as a fairly unlikable character. 
Mostly for his attitude during the "Yo Mama" jokes part of political speeches
Marisa Tomei was effective as a tough reporter.  Evan Rachel Wood was pretty good as a Morris campaign intern.  You might recognize Max Minghella's eyebrows from The Social Network; he plays a similarly small role here.

While the acting is good, the best parts don't get nearly enough attention.  I seriously loved Giamatti and Hoffman as heartless dueling chessmasters, but this movie needed either Gosling or Wood to be the characters that impressed. 
...and it wasn't going to be her bipolar character
This is one of the problems I have with George Clooney as a writer/director.  While I appreciate his apparent modesty when in the directing chair (his only major role in a picture he directed was in the comedy Leatherheads), I think he tends to value the theme of his movies more than the performances.  The Ides of March looks pretty good and is told in a competent fashion, but it felt like Clooney was holding back for most of the film.  I was more than willing to wait for the hammer to drop, but when it did, I was left cold.  For reasons that elude me, it seems that George Clooney expects audiences to be shocked by political backstabbing and corruption.  Maybe someone should tell him that Watergate was almost forty years ago now; Americans haven't trusted their elected officials to be anything but bastards for decades.
Moments later, at least one man would have a knife in his back

That's not to say that The Ides of March is a waste of time; it's just not as excellent as it should be, given the talent involved.  Here's what I liked:
  • while Clooney is an outspoken Democrat, this film doesn't target (or even mention) Republicans, which makes this a lot less abrasive than it might have been
  • Ryan Gosling's crazy eyes when he finds out Governor Morris' secret are priceless
  • I loved Giamatti's character when he explained his motives
"Well, Stephen, I'm made entirely of bastard molecules"
Here's what I didn't like:
  • Really?  That is the scandal facing Governor Morris?  Couldn't they try something unique?
  • Evan Rachel Wood's character's motives confuse me.  SPOILER ALERT: Maybe I just don't understand pregnancy (which is very possible), but I have trouble imagining a seemingly carefree young woman essentially demanding sex from a handsome man when A) she knows she is pregnant B) is freaking the hell out about being pregnant and C) her new sexy time partner is not her baby daddy.
  • That title sucks so much.  Sure, they were clever enough to set Election Day on March 15, but did they have to use this title?  While slightly literary, the only people who want to watch this film will know exactly what the title refers to --- if they weren't going to be subtle, they might as well have titled the movie "Political Betrayal: The Movie"
And to be completely honest, I would not have minded any of those flaws too much if the film had only had a better message.  The Ides of March is not an expose, but it has the feel of one; if they had focused on the betrayal and built up Stephen's idealism more, this could have (maybe) been a great film. 
Stephen, in mourning for his innocence
Sadly, it's stuck in that limbo of "pretty good," where a lot of movies get forgotten.


  1. This is entertaining even if suspense barely builds and pay-off revelations come with little surprise. Clooney, as a director, is also able to draw-out amazing performances from this whole ensemble cast. Great review Brian.

    1. I'm still undecided about Clooney as a director. While it's true that there were no bad performances --- and I loved me some Hoffman and Giamatti --- how much of that is Clooney and how much of that is him casting a great group of actors?

      I agree, though. While it's not perfect, I still mostly enjoyed the film in the moment.

  2. I was very letdown with this flick, for many of the reasons you list. Most of all, it was the overall point of the movie: politics is full of a bunch of jerks! And could Baby Goose's character really have made it that far up the latter while still being so wide-eyed to the goodness of a politician? This movie brought absolutely nothing new to the table - especially with its lame "twist" or whatever the hell you want to call it.

    I am torn on Clooney as a director as well. I think he was mainly hampered by the weak story in this one, but he did about as well as he could with it. (Maybe.) (Why did I use parenthesis there?)

    1. I agree that Clooney was hampered by the story. Too bad he co-wrote the screenplay.

  3. [palm-to-face] Missed that part. He sucks. He should get a Phillip K Dick story and turn it into a movie. Or try reading better stories. Maybe I should give him a call.