Screened Out – Our Brand is Crisis

By : Stephen Miller
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Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackey, Joaquim de Almeida

Political comedy is already a tricky game; most Americans are sick and tired of the real stuff and don’t want to pay to watch a fake version. We all understand about marketing, positioning, and spin – in movies and politics, both. When you try to tack on a humanitarian message to all the filth and depravity, you end up with an uneven, dishonest film. Not unpleasant, but certainly inconsistent.

Sure, it’d be nice if there were even the minutest shred of humanity in politics. That idea went away when Hollywood quit making Mr. Smith Goes to Washington films.

Bullock is a recovering alcoholic and smoker who gets roped into marketing for a Bolivian campaign. She had been happily retired for six years, cleaned up, living in the woods, and making pottery. Why is she so easily pulled back into the cesspool? Because she gets to go up against her rival Thornton. She’s good – amoral and underhanded and very, very skilled at her job. So is Thornton.

What follows is a chunky ceviche of a film loaded with juvenile humor, gossip, pranks, revenge, one-upmanship, and Latin American-style social issues. Part of Crisis is puerile hilarity – pleasant but not quite as biting as Wag the Dog. The other half is ardent, heartfelt commentary on the loss of faith in political process. We’re supposed to buy that the same people who manipulate elections are the ones who begrudge that elections can be manipulated.

The barbed rapport between Billy Bob Thornton and Sandra Bullock is the best part of this film.

The barbed rapport between Billy Bob Thornton and Sandra Bullock is the best part of this film.

Sandra Bullock is both the charm and the probable downfall of this political story. She’s got a solid sense of comedy that works; it’d work even better if the filmmakers had been brave enough to be completely nasty. Even with the lack of parody, of commitment, her largely amoral character is always intriguing. However, Bullock is also America’s sweetheart, so Crisis feels like some producers’ focus group cried for her to be more likeable. She ends up doing crappy, terrible things and then writhing in agony over how ugly it all is.

I think we all know that campaigns are bullshit – it’s all polling and finance and commercial success. When it comes to viper pit of politics, it’s hard to tell Bolivia from the United States from supposedly democratic Middle Eastern countries. Not that totalitarian governments are ethical; in fact, all political process is mired in deceit, double dealing, money, power, and corruption.

Crisis is produced by Grant Heslov and George Clooney. It isn’t nearly as good as The Descendants or Argo, their previous projects.

Crisis is best when it’s cruel. It should’ve maintained this sense of comic daring. Make Bullock and Thornton so laughably horrible that we love to hate them. Make their candidates two sides of the same evil coin. Make Bolivia some fictional country overrun with all the worst in third-world corruption. Have a sense of style, of panache, of audacity.

Ratings Key

See it now! Buy the DVD! Quote lines at parties!

Definitely worth the price of admission

It’s useful as a distraction

Maybe if someone else pays and you need a nap

Slightly worse than eternal damnation

By the end, Crisis feeds us the same line of crap that politicians peddle. Even when we know it’s about the money and the power – even after this film tells us this – it double backs to tell us that there’s morality and heart buried in all the feces. Not that Crisis is a bad film. Just like a wishy-washy, dishonest politician, it tries to be all things to all people. As a bureaucratic farce, it polls high, but not quite enough for a landslide. As a treatise for honesty in politics, it lies through its shiny, veneered Hollywood teeth.

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