Saturday, October 8, 2011

Review: "The Ides of March"

Ryan Gosling has, along with Bryce Dallas Howard and break-out star Jessica Chastain, had something of a banner year, first with Crazy, Stupid Love, and then Drive, one of my favorite films of the year thus far. An immensely talented actor (best of his generation?), 2011 was the year that Gosling finally embraced his leading man/star potential, and it's paid off quite well. His final offering for 2011, George Clooney's political drama The Ides of March previously tipped for Oscar consideration, seemed like a bang-up way to close out the year. But even though it's a solid entry on the actor's (and everyone involved) filmography, Ides is a curiously limited film, one that is intriguing enough through its run time, but perhaps not good enough to linger long in one's thoughts.

Adapted from Beau Willimon's play "Farragut North," (itself said to be loosely based on the '08 campaign of Howard Dean), Ides centers on Stephen Myers, an expert media strategist working for Democratic hopeful Mike Morris (Clooney) during the critical Ohio primary. Myers is seen as one of the best media minds in the country, and an invaluable asset to any campaign he works for. But as its Shakespearean title suggests, however, something is rotten in the state of Ohio. As Myers navigates the shark-infested waters of the campaign, he gets a crash course in dirty politics that leaves him a profoundly changed man.

Starting off on a weak note, The Ides of March does improve from its somewhat tepid opening sequences. The characters and their relationships aren't as engaging, charming, or witty as the film would like us to believe, and it makes the introductory act the least cinematically pleasing of the lot. When the story finally hits its central conflict, however, it's generally all up hill from there. Clooney may not have much of an eye for compelling images (hand this story off to Polanski, and you'll come back with an elegant, sleek cousin to The Ghost Writer), but he certainly tells the basic story well, even though he cuts a crucial scene short just so another character can explain it to another later. Some may not be too enthused by the film's politics (the left-leaning ideals are worn proudly on the film's sleeve), but at least they're contextualized in the form of press conferences, debates, and town hall meetings.

Unfortunately, as the film progresses and the story gets stronger, the characters get weaker. Despite its all star cast, The Ides of March doesn't necessarily use them well, nor does the screenplay give them much to work with. Gosling is reliable, as always, and has some strong moments in the final act, but in spots he seems to either coast, or verge into bug-eyed territory. He can at least be thankful, though, that his character has enough that's meaningful to do and say. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, two of our greatest character actors, give solid turns in opposing supporting roles (Giamatti's being given a bit more to work with). Unfortunately, the script doesn't take their characters far enough. I'd heard beforehand that each of their characters had a "big moment" that could lead to a place in the upcoming awards season. Having seen the performances, I'm wondering what on earth those moments were, because neither actor makes a lasting impression. As far as women are concerned, Marisa Tomei is given a key role, but not an interesting character, though she certainly fairs better than poor Jennifer Ehle (can we please stop giving this woman thankless roles?). Surprisingly, the film's best performance comes from Evan Rachel Wood as a young intern on the Morris campaign, who mixes ambition and vulnerability to create the film's most sympathetic character. Clooney, in front of the camera, is absent from screen for surprisingly long portions, but in his one major scene he nails it, and the tension he and Gosling create is fantastic, albeit fleeting.

On the technical side, its a solid film, though there's nothing extraordinary about aspects like costumes or set design. Cinematography, by Phedon Papamichael, is merely adequte, barring the excellent final shot. The standout, a surprise in this sort of film, is Alexandre Desplat's score, a low-key blend of beats and strings that adds a subtle touch of intrigue and danger to the film's atmosphere. Unfortunately, the use (or misuse) of the characters comes back to bite the film. The feeling of betrayal is never made as compelling to the audience as it is to the characters, most of whom fall into one-note territory. The script also falls victim to two obvious pieces of foreshadowing, one which feels contrived, and one that feels like a last-minute attempt to show that the story has been brought full-circle. The Ides of March is like candidate Mike Morris in many ways; it has undeniable strengths that should make it a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, those strengths are undercut by flaws that diminish its impact. Is this an intelligent, adult-oriented film? Yes. Is it anything remarkable, or will it be remembered in the years to come? Probably not.

Grade: B-

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