On paper Our Brand Is Crisis seems like it was made to be Oscar bait. It comes from George Clooney and Grant Heslov, the creative team behind such Oscar-nominated biopics and political flicks as Argo, Goodnight and Good Luck, and The Ides of March. It stars Oscar winners Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thorton, and boasts a supporting cast studded with critic’s darlings like Ann Dowd, Anthony Mackie, Zoe Kazan, and Scoot McNairy. Its release date is in the same month where Clooney and Bullock slayed two years ago (critically and finically) with Gravity. And it’s a based on a stranger-than-fiction true story.
Made to order for the Academy, right? Not so much.
Our Brand Is Crisis is not greater than the sum of its parts. It’s fine. Sometimes, it’s even fun. But what’s it all about? Bullock stars as “Calamity” Jane, a campaign strategist who had a mental breakdown after a particularly grueling election. (We’re told this through a convenient interview talking head and a montage of expositional newspaper headlines over the opening credits.) So Jane pulled back from politics and retreated to a remote cabin where she gave up smoking and drinking and took up pottery. But when a presidential race in Bolivia gives her a chance to stick it to a longtime rival (Thorton), Jane reluctantly drags herself to South America, where she schemes to make her candidate the winner, consequences be damned.
As I hadn’t seen the documentary of the same name on which this narrative is based, I worried I might not understand enough of Bolivia’s culture, people or politics to follow the movie. Yeah, I don’t. The script by Peter Straughan paints in broad strokes so that I get that the poor people of Bolivia doesn’t want this one thing, and Jane’s candidate does. A major theme is that perception is reality in politics, yet I couldn’t make sense of what politics I was meant to root for. Everyone seemed crooked. I mean, I didn’t want Thorton’s candidate to win, but mostly because everything Thorton says in this movie makes him seem like he’s auditioning for American Horror Story. His flirtations are so laced with seedy sex and threat I began to wonder if his secret was he’s a serial killer.
I’ve heard some critics are praising the chemistry between Bullock and Thorton. Not this one. He seems like a major creep and she seems like every poor women ever forced to be polite to such a creep lest they be the kind of creep crazy enough to murder you and wear your skin. You want a sense of the “chemistry” these two share on screen? Check out this from their premiere. You’ll never be able to unsee it, but you’ll get it.
So the stakes of the narrative are obscured among a slapdash explanation of an entire nation’s culture and politics. But when Bullock is not literally stumbling all over herself for awkward laughs (pratfalls are not always comedy gold) or vomiting into buckets (altitude sickness is all too real), she’s pretty damn mesmerizing. It was a total joy watching her boss around her smug candidate Castillo (a perfectly cast Joaquim de Almeida). She’s in control, angry and taking no prisoners! Those moments are the ones you can imagine playing in an Oscar clip reel. Though dear gawds, I’ll be disappointed if that happens when there’s so many more daring and engaging female performances out there this year. (Jessica Chastain or Alicia Vikander in any one of their several 2015 releases.)
Also fun is Kazan, who steals scenes with a slight smirk as a muckraking aid known only as LeBlanc. While McNairy’s arrogant Ugly American zips around not speaking the language and blithely ignoring the world around him, LeBlanc is fluent, sharp and composed no matter what. It made me wish she had more to do, but it felt like a victory that the film gave such a role to a female character, small though it was. LeBlanc’s being female had no relevance, just as Jane’s doesn’t. They are treated as people not tokens, and that is something I admired about the movie. But little else.
Director David Gordon Green’s filmography is a rollercoaster ride of highs (Pineapple Express, Prince Avalanche) and lows (Your Highness, The Sitter). This is like one of those little bumps in a rollercoaster that’s briefly exhilarating but soon forgotten. Our Brand Is Crisis has moments that sparkle with wit and charm, but overall it’s a sloppy slog through partially formed ideas and characters so unappealing you’d likely fake an injury or emergency phone call rather than spend 107 minutes with them.
Kristy Puchko considered making that linked photo of Bullock and Thorton the entire review.