Our Brand Is Crisis (Warner Bros., R)

film our-brand-is-crisis_smAs for whether this is a drama or a comedy, it’s more the latter, but we could debate that point.

 

 

 

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Something seemed a little off in the minutes leading up to the start of the press screening of Our Brand Is Crisis. Not that anything was wrong, per se, but a lot of the audience, press included, seemed confused about how they came to be there. Is this a comedy? A drama? Can we trust director David Gordon Green anymore? Is Sandra Bullock actually capable of turning in a decent performance?

Of course, Bullock only just won an Oscar a few years back, but she remains one of my least favorite A-list actors (though I do like her at least sometimes, such as in The Heat). Green started off as an indie darling, directing such excellent films as George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003), before detouring into mostly subpar mainstream comedy like Pineapple Express (2008) and The Sitter (2011). In recent years, he’s gone back to indies, some good (2013’s Joe), some not (the same year’s Prince Avalanche).

And then, as Our Brand Is Crisis started, I came to find the film as strange as it seemed in theory. For one thing, it is, in fact, mostly pretty good. It’s based on a true story (the credits amusingly say that it was “suggested by” the 2005 Rachel Boynton documentary of the same name, a film I have not seen) of a political strategist Jane Bodine, aka “Calamity Jane.” The character speaks in Bartlett’s quotes and is great at what she does, but she also has a tendency to get herself into trouble—and to lose when pitted against one Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, very good here, as usual). As far as I can tell, Candy is a version of James Carville, whom you might have seen as Bill Clinton’s political advisor in the 1993 documentary The War Room.

Calamity Jane essentially comes out of retirement to advise on a Bolivian presidential election in which Candy is already working for the sure winner. Jane’s horse, at the time she joins his team, is 28 points behind in the polls with 90 days until the vote, but she can’t resist one last chance to take on Candy.

As for whether this is a drama or a comedy, it’s more the latter, but we could debate that point. Bullock’s performance is one of her better ones, and especially noteworthy are a few quick, inconsequential scenes of slapstick-y pratfalls. These are staged both convincingly and amusingly, with Bullock doing what has to be the best physical comedy work of her career. The supporting cast is by and large very strong, too, with Scoot McNairy and Zoe Kazan as standouts, though underused.

Sort-of spoiler warning: Our Brand Is Crisis doesn’t quite end the way you would expect it to, and I suspect the audience will be harder on the film than it deserves because of this. In fairness, the ending didn’t really work for me, either, but at the same time I can see its necessity to the story, and it seems unwise to simply write it off as poorly done. | Pete Timmermann

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