After the childishness of the recent Canadian election, I was primed for the cynicism in Our Brand Is Crisis. Promising to be a biting satire but succumbing to the juvenility it loathes, this film feels like it’s still teething, unable to chew on a political jawbreaker.
During the Canadian election, a campaign ad attacked the young Justin Trudeau using the pun “he’s just not ready”. “Calamity” Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) is one of the masterminds behind these kinds of political name-calling, using campaign ads, slogans, TV interviews, and crafty buzz-phrases to change perceptions. Out of commission after years of putting tyrants into office, she is approached by two American advisors for a corrupt presidential candidate in Bolivia. Jane is tentative to lead the candidate until she finds out that Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), the man who has beaten her out in every campaign they’ve run against each other, is turning tricks for the other side.
Jane is a prostitute for this system, selling her virtues to create misleading narratives. She pitches Castillo as a tough and uncharismatic man who is the only one fit to face the country’s “crisis” – a broad term that is never defined or flushed out. She stages an attack against her own candidate in order to make her negative campaign seem like a defensive strike. Remember when your younger sibling tattled on you so he could call you a “poopy head” without getting in trouble? That’s what Jane is doing.
Our Brand Is Crisis links the political campaigns’ mudslinging with puerile mischievousness. When Castillo’s campaign bus races against his competitor on a narrow back road, the two sides make faces, throw objects, and Jane even flashes her rear through the window. They act like a group of children on their way to school, not civilized politicians en-route to leading a country. The sequence is a hilarious metaphor for corrupt political campaigns; Jane even asks the bus driver how much she’ll have to pay to get ahead, a bribe for power that is like a childish game.
The idea of this sequence, and many others in the film, is smart, layered and funny, but in execution it’s uninspired and seemingly unaware of its own depth, playing it for slapstick knee-slaps and not satirical belly-laughs. Every character speaks in anecdotes and pretentious quotations, but they’re played earnestly as if we’re supposed to learn something from their façade. The director, David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express), seems to misunderstand the screenplay, while Bullock, who does a lot of the film’s heavy lifting (or in her case, slouching), can’t nail the timing or deeper point of many of the jokes. She is constantly winking and making us aware of the film’s screwball humor, instead of playing it straight for dual-meaning.
As a storyteller Green’s work is as lazy as a lying politician. Dishonestly dramatizing the events by using manipulative montages and David Wingo’s forgettable score, Our Brand Is Crisis fails as comedic cynicism or uplifting inspiration: an odd tonal mish-mash in need of Jane’s stark sense of how to craft a story. To signify passages in time, graphics frequently appear on screen to fill us in on how many rungs Castillo has to climb to reach the top of the leaderboard. Seeing Castillo near the bottom of the ladder is the equivalent of getting to the quarter marker on a hike. We realize there is a lot more gruel to withstand.
Amidst the stupidity, one great moment is staged. Preparing for a debate in an enormous and empty auditorium, Jane challenges Castillo’s arrogance by boldly declaring he is just a front – a puppet for all those seats in the room. For Castillo, the people are absent, unheard voices calling for change. The echo of the room eerily hints at a people unheard.
By manipulating people with false narratives, Jane shows the essential flaw in democracy. As Winston Churchi ll once said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Our Brand Is Crisis is the best film about democracy, except for maybe all the others.