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Ides of March, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"He Came, He Saw, He Disappointed"
3 stars

By all accounts, "The Ides of March" should be the very model of a modern adult-oriented screen drama. The story that it tells deals with themes and ideas that are both topical and timeless, does not require the deployment of chases, shootouts or giant-ass robots to bring the narrative to a fitting conclusion and is based upon a stage play that, although unseen by me, has received enough acclaim in other places to offer reasonable assurances as to its intrinsic qualities. It has, in George Clooney, a director who has made a name for himself behind the camera for making smart and classy entertainments that refuse to pander to the baser instincts of contemporary commercial filmmaking. The large and expansive cast is filled with an intriguing blend of hot rising stars, canny veterans and Marisa Tomei, the kind of performer whose mere presence in a film is enough to insure that things will at least be interesting during the scenes in which she is on the screen. With such a combination of elements, With such a powerhouse combination of elements, it would seem virtually impossible for something along the artistic lines of "The Ides of March" to fail and yet, that is pretty much exactly what it does. Okay, perhaps "fail" is a bit too strong of a word because it is never flat-out awful along the lines of such klunkers as "Real Steel" or the majority of the current multiplex fodder being doled out on a weekly basis. That said, it is never very good either--certainly not as good as its pedigree would suggest--and after a while, watching it become akin to sitting in a Prius with a dead battery and realizing that all of the good intentions in the world are unable to make up for the fact that it isn't really going anywhere.

Set amidst the tumult of a tight race for the Democratic presidential nomination, "The Ides of March" takes place during the all-important Ohio primary that could decide once and for all whether the nomination will go to the staid, safe veteran or the canny outsider riding a wave of popularity as the hot new face in politics. That face belongs to Pennsylvania governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), an ultra-idealistic liberal who has vowed not to play the standard political games normally required to secure the nomination and is reaping the surprising benefits of such a bold stance. However, the real power behind the campaign--the people responsible for getting Morris's message out there every day, spinning the never-ending poll results and putting out any potentially threatening fires--are longtime campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his #2, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling). For Zara, a man so used to the shady ways of contemporary politics that even his most benign statements carry the sting of world-weary cynicism about them, it is just another campaign and Morris is just another candidate but for Myers, Morris is the real deal. Sure, if Gov. Morris gets into the White House, it will presumably mean a top-level gig for Stephen but that isn't the top reason driving him to get the man elected--he truly and genuinely believes in all sincerity that the governor is a man of his word and that, unlike most other hack politicians, things really will be for the better if he wins the race.

With the polls suggesting that Gov. Morris is in the lead and Zara off to seek the endorsement of a powerful senator (Jeffrey Wright) who controls enough delegates to cinch the nomination, everything seems to be lining up perfectly and this, of course, is exactly the point where it all begins to go to hell. It begins innocently enough when Stephen receives a call from Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the crafty architect behind the opposing campaign, requesting a meeting between the two of them. Despite the potentially disastrous personal and professional consequences, Stephen's curiosity gets the better of him and, without mentioning it to anyone, he agrees to the rendezvous. During their meeting, Duffy informs Stephen that he has polling that suggest that Morris will lose the primary and be knocked out of the race for good. Then he drops the real bombshell--he wants Stephen to abandon the Morris campaign and come to work with him. Stephen turns him down but still neglects to mention anything about the meeting to Morris or Zara for a couple more days and when he finally does, the fallout is predictable. Complicating matters even further is the presence of Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), a sexy young intern who has been flirting with Stephen while harboring some secrets of her own, and a New York Times reporter (Marisa Tomei) who is beginning to detect the scent of a major story in the air and senses that Stephen may be the key to it all.

Like the campaign that it documents, everything on the surface of "The Ides of March" is perfectly fine. As someone who has always been fascinated by politics, I was intrigued by the notion of a film taking a look at the often byzantine twists, turns and compromises that go into running for office--sort of a contemporary take on the likes of "The Candidate." The dialogue in the screenplay by Cloomey, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, based on the latter's play "Farragut North") is smart and literate and captures the jangled rhythms of the milieu, in which practically everything has a double meaning and in which everyone is careful about what they say lest they slip and allow something potentially damaging to appear on the record. As a director, Clooney handles the material in a smooth and efficient manner that manages to keep the dialogue-heavy narrative moving along without allowing it to come across as overly stagey. All the performances are excellent as well. Clooney, Hoffman and Giamatti are among the best American actors working today and they take great pleasure in sinking their teeth into their meaty roles. On the other hand, Gosling, who is clearly having a hell of a year career-wise, more than holds his own against the lot of them with his extremely deft and fascinating turn as Stephen and while Wood and Tomei have less to do, they make exceptionally vivid impressions as well. There is great please to be had in watching strong actors practicing their craft and some of the most pleasurable moments to be had in "The Ides of March" come just from the sight of watching these talented people bouncing and sparking off of each other.

And yet, despite all of these elements, I found myself curiously detached and disinterested from the proceedings and after a while, it finally dawned on me what the problem was. Simply put, I didn't believe any of it for a second. I never believed that someone as smart and canny as Stephen was meant to be could be so easily manipulated as he was here. I never believed any of the plot developments involving the intern and her troubles. I never believed the machinations leading up to the climactic confrontation between Stephen and Morris. For that matter, I never even believed in the idea that Governor Morris could be a leading contender for the presidency in this day and age. In a dream world, Morris would be the perfect candidate--he unapologetically says the kinds of things that would fill liberals with delight while driving conservatives up the wall and I don't think there is a single position that he endorses that I personally wouldn't support 100%--but he is such an obvious fantasy of what the ultimate compromise-free Democratic candidate might be like that it strains credibility that he could have even been elected governor of Pennsylvania, let alone be making his way to the White House. Admittedly, I see plenty of movies featuring premises that are borderline unbelievable but in a film that live or dies on the basis of its credibility, the lake of plausibility pretty much kills the entire thing dead in its tracks despite its other considerable achievements.

"The Ides of March" isn't a complete washout by any mean and it contains enough virtues to just about balance out its central conceptual flaw. Without having read or seen the play, I can't say for sure whether its problems were created during its adaptation to the screen (for example, I understand that the character of the governor is never actually seen) and how many of them were part of the original material but the end result is the same--a strong premise and an even stronger cast are somewhat wasted on a storyline that, in the end, is little more than an expanded episode of "The West Wing." This is a bit of a shame because I really wanted to like it because of my interest in the subject matter, the cast and the notion of watching a smart adult drama after a summer fairly brimming with mindless nonsense. Unfortunately, thanks to the silly plotting, what should have been a taut drama ripped from today's headlines turns out to be about a gripping as a month-old copy of "Newsweek."

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22394&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/06/11 23:07:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 68th Venice International Film Festival For more in the 68th Venice International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/02/12 HOW ABOUT... Ending showing candidate's wife knocking him down and dancing on his genitals. 4 stars
3/13/12 May Q. Horney Giamatti right on target;Hoffman over the top;Tomei her usual annoying;Clooney forgettable 4 stars
1/18/12 Monday Morning Great cast, acting, story & dialog; almost as good as an episode of "West Wing." 4 stars
1/13/12 Joanne Not ,"all that original" "...very good movie." Must be the acting. 4 stars
10/20/11 Carol Miles I wouldn't say this is all that original, still it is a very good movie. 4 stars
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  07-Oct-2011 (R)
  DVD: 17-Jan-2012


  DVD: 17-Jan-2012

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