Bullock Rules In So-So "Our Brand Is Crisis"

To see an actor work at a markedly higher level than the film they’re in can be enthralling, confounding, or flat-out disconcerting. David Gordon Green’s “Our Brand Is Crisis” is puree of all three, a broad political comedy that dispenses a career-best performance from Sandra Bullock and almost nothing else. With its deep silliness and unwavering earnestness clashing at nearly every turn, it’s left to Bullock to sucker us into thinking we’re watching a good film. She almost pulls it off.

Loosely based on the 2005 documentary of the same name, Peter Straughan’s screenplay sees Bolivian politico Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) hire an American consulting firm to help jumpstart his dragging poll numbers. He’s an ungodly thirty points behind and needs to complete a Hail Mary pass just to have a chance.

Knowing their long odds, said firm lobs up a desperation ball of their own in the form of a meeting with legendary (but disgraced) political consultant “Calamity” Jane Bodine (Bullock). Resigned to a life of pottery making in a remote cabin, she resists the firm’s overtures until they have no choice but to lustily bait their hook. The lead strategist of the opposing campaign is Jane’s arch nemesis, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton). She can’t resist.

With their fixer locked in, Gallo’s campaign predictably restarts as a comedy of errors. A llama is killed when filming for a commercial goes wrong, Jane assumes that all of her Bolivian staff members can speak English (they can’t), and a bona fide chase scene (involving a school bus) pops up at the film’s halfway point. It’s all lightly funny but only underscores that the movie has no real desire to be politically illuminating.

Anthony Mackie, Scott McNairy, Ann Dowd, and Zoe Kazan are all good performers that capably round out Jane’s team, but they’re not characters so much as cut-outs. Bullock is the only human among them, finding the delicate balance between comedy and drama that no one else is able to – David Gordon Green included.

No one has ever been able to pin down the peculiar filmmaker – he’s dabbled in everything from darling indie romantic drama (“All The Real Girls”) to great stoner comedy (“Pineapple Express”) to awful stoner comedy (“Your Highness”) – so to see him be so willfully opaque within a single film isn’t a surprise. But it is a disappointment, and his aloof direction here is both a first and an unwelcome development for a career that’s never quite lived up to its promise.

But, God, is Bullock good. In real life and Straughan’s original screenplay both, her character was a man, before she asked producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov to change it. The result is a performance that singlehandedly muscles the film from second-generation David O. Russell Xerox to something worth seeing, an ALL-CAPS-GREAT turn that would be a shoo-in for Oscar consideration if the film around it were any good.

It’s exciting to see a 51-year old actress get such a juicy role and even more exciting to see her hammer it into the opposing team’s bullpen. Her Jane Bodine is more fully realized than the film’s supporting characters combined, conversely whip-smart and addled, funny and sad, a political Pagliacci whose ultimate twist of fate feels real instead of choreographed.

“Our Brand Is Crisis” isn’t much of a movie, but it’s one hell of a showcase for Bullock who was once written off as one-dimensional action heroine (“Speed”) and then parody of a one-dimensional action heroine (“Speed 2: Cruise Control”) and then one-dimensional rom-com lead (“Miss Congeniality,” “The Proposal,” etc.). But she’s the real deal and she’s only getting better. With any luck, Hollywood won’t just find her substantial roles moving forward, but substantial roles in better movies.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: October 30, 2015
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenwriter: Peter Straughan
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Joaquim de Almeida, Scoot McNairy, Ann Dowd, Zoe Kazan
MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)