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Review:  ‘Our Brand Is Crisis’ pulls punches, but Sandra Bullock is in high gear

Los Angeles Times Film Critic

Like the politicians and political consultants it mocks, “Our Brand Is Crisis” doesn’t completely deliver on what it promises. Nominally a satiric comedy, the film is only sporadically effective, running out of energy before it reaches the end.

To its credit, “Crisis,” directed by David Gordon Green, is the rare major studio comedy to have anything serious on its mind, and that’s because its plot was inspired by an excellent Rachel Boynton documentary that came out a decade ago.

Boynton’s remarkable film, also called “Our Brand Is Crisis,” went behind the scenes as a high-powered American political consulting firm — one that included James Carville — attempted to guide an unpopular Bolivian ex-president to another term in office.

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As written by Peter Straughan, the fictional “Crisis” is also set during a Bolivian presidential campaign, though this time the film’s savvy political strategist is a woman, Jane Bodine, nicknamed “Calamity Jane” because of the chaos she invariably brings in her wake.

That change of gender is the best creative decision “Crisis” made, because it opened up a part for Sandra Bullock, a practiced farceur and someone with the fearless energy needed to make things funny.

Balanced against that, however, is the film’s lackadaisical pacing, which means “Crisis” takes awhile to get into gear.

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The narrative starts with political operatives Ben (Anthony Mackie) and Nell (Anne Dowd) driving to the remote snowy fastness where Jane lives in quiet, pottery-making retirement. No longer burned out by campaign trail excesses, she neither smokes nor drinks and claims “I’m better than happy. I’m calm.”

Ben and Nell, however, want her back in the saddle, helping them save the campaign of a Bolivian candidate named Castillo (Portuguese actor Joaquim de Almeida) who is 28 points behind the front-runner with 90 days until the election.

Jane says no, but Ben and Nell have a secret weapon: Castillo’s top opponent is being advised by Jane’s bête noir, a rival consultant named Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton at his most Mephistophelian) who has beaten her every time they’ve gone head to head. Game on, Jane says, game on.

Still, it’s not like Jane hits the ground running. A combination of altitude sickness and general lethargy makes her less than completely involved. Until one of Candy’s patented dirty tricks lights a fire under her.

When Jane gets involved, the entire film moves into a higher gear. Rather than change the candidate, she attempts to change the thrust of the national campaign to fit his strengths. In other words, she manufactures a sense of crisis and presents Castillo as a fighter with the best chance of dealing with it.

With Jane going on the attack, quoting “The Art of War” author Sun Tzu, referencing the “Daisy” attack ad that derailed Barry Goldwater and hiring expert dirt-digger LeBlanc (Zoe Kazan), this central part of “Crisis” is the film’s most energetic and entertaining.

But just when the film should be increasing its momentum and revealing even more about how campaigns really work, it stalls. Like “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” an earlier collaboration between Straughan and producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney, “Crisis” has difficulty deciding whether it’s a comedy or something more serious, and that indecision proves fatal.

Rather than continue in a satiric mode, “Crisis” gets increasingly fascinated by one of its least-involving characters, a young Bolivian named Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco) whose earnest belief in political democracy leads to some dead-end plot detours.

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The heart of the problem is that “Our Brand Is Crisis” wants to have it both ways. It wants to titillate us with dirty tricks performed by cynics who believe “if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal” while at the same time pounding the drum for the power of the people to make things right. With a foot in both camps, a stumble was all but inevitable.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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‘Our Brand Is Crisis’

MPAA rating: R, for language including some sexual references

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Playing: In general release


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