'Our Brand Is Crisis': Film Review

Yanks up to no good again in South America.

Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton star as rival political consultants embroiled in a Bolivian election in David Gordon Green's new film.

An oddball political outing that feels halfway between a studio film and an indie, as well as something between a farce and a political expose, Our Brand Is Crisis is actually a fictionalized take on a trenchant 2005 documentary of the same name about American consultants’ not-so-pretty involvement in a Bolivian presidential election. Quite possibly a sort-of bonus bestowed by Warner Bros. on star Sandra Bullock and co-producer George Clooney for having done Gravity, director David Gordon Green’s latest unpredictable addition to his resume is offbeat and appealing on some levels but is neither as funny nor as trenchant as it might have been. It’s fair to say this won’t be one of Bullock’s biggest grossers.

The model for Bullock’s memorably named character "Calamity" Jane Bodine is actually none other than Bill Clinton’s well-known election operative James Carville, who in the early 2000s was hired to advise on what turned out to be a successful campaign to regain office by an unpopular former Bolivian president.

Dragged from the seclusion of a mountain cabin where she’s been lying low and drying out after a series of unsuccessful consulting gigs, the seemingly terminally depressive Jane accompanies a small team (played by Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scott McNairy and Zoe Kazan) to Bolivia to see what they can do for former head of state Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), a handsome, middle-aged, upper-cruster of no evident political convictions or ability at articulation. Given his lack of enthusiasm, Castillo may be running again just for lack of anything better to do.

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For her part, upon arriving in La Paz, Jane suffers from a prolonged bout of altitude-induced nausea compounded by a foggy cluelessness over how to sell the public on Castillo, whose polling numbers are pathetic. An anti-big business, man-of-the-people populist has a commanding lead that would seem impervious to anything a corrupt, out-of-touch ruling class figure could do or say.

For perhaps longer than is advisable in terms of viewer interest, Jane herself comes off as a lost cause, an undoubtedly once-sharp cookie who now shows no signs of regaining her edge or strategic creativity; with her stringy dyed blonde hair and often puffy, reddish eyes, she looks out of it, even ill.

But a weird incident in which a local smashes an egg on Castillo’s head, whereupon the candidate slugs the man back, jolts the campaign to a semblance of life, as does the presence of a rival American political strategist, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), with whom Jane has a past that is at least professionally competitive (his candidates have beaten hers repeatedly of late) but perhaps was once something more. Amusingly, Thornton here sports a shaved cue-ball head that immediately reminds of Carville.

Thus awakened, Jane lurches back to life, taking up smoking again, creating disturbances and pulling outrageous stunts like having the train from which the leading candidate is speaking pull out of the station prematurely and drag racing the opposition’s bus with her own on a windy rural road. Jane clearly only comes fully alive when the gloves come off, and no blow is too low for her to throw. Her ultimate piece of political wisdom: "Getting hurt is unavoidable if you want to play this game."

The script by Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Wolf Hall, in addition to The Men Who Stare At Goats for Clooney and Heslov six years ago) is fair as far as it goes, but the film feels half-baked, as if it were torn between being an all-out indictment of American meddling in South American political affairs and a scorchingly outrageous satire on politics in a neighborhood where no help is needed from "yanquis" where corruption is concerned.

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Under the direction of the ever-eclectic Green, there are amusements to be had, especially when Bullock finally begins cranking up her character to distinctly disreputable levels. But there’s the lingering feeling of opportunities missed, of things not being said that might have been, of stones being unturned that might have revealed much more about the shortcomings of political systems not exactly known for their reliability and righteousness. A double-dose of Preston Sturges-like high-and-low comedy injected into the proceedings would have been just what the doctor ordered.

At the same time, there is a color and vitality stemming from a film shot in unusual places for a Hollywood production (foreign location work was done in Laz Paz and Puerto Rico), as well as from Bullock playing a highly disreputable character and not caring how she looks or comes off; she even moons some victims of her pranks from a bus window.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)

Opens: October 30 (Warner Bros.)

Production: Smokehouse

Cast: Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Joaquim de Almeida, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, Zoe Kazan, Dominic Flores, Reynaldo Pacheco

Director: David Gordon Green

Screenwriter: Peter Straughan

Producers: Grant Heslov, George Clooney

Executive producers: Sandra Bullock, Stuart Besser, Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King

Director of photography: Tim Orr

Production designer: Richard A. Wright

Costume designer: Jenny Eagan

Editor: Colin Patton

Music: David Wingo

Casting: Alexa L. Fogel, Karmen Leech, John Williams

108 minutes