Sandra Bullock is a talented actress who has chosen some fine projects (“Speed,” “Gravity”) and at least as many awful ones (“Hope Floats,” “Premonition,” “The Lake House”). “Our Brand is Crisis” belongs in the first group.
Peter Straughan’s screenplay is credited as “suggested by” Rachel Boynton’s 2006 documentary of the same name — which is fair enough.
Boynton was a fly in the wall, as the political consulting firm GCS — Stan Greenburg, James Carville, and Bob Shrum — flew down to Bolivia to deploy American-style campaign tactics on behalf of unpopular presidential candidate Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. They helped Sanchez de Lozada win with a tiny plurality.
The new “Our Brand is Crisis” preserves parts of the real history, particularly the personality and background of the candidate, here renamed Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida). Castillo is arrogant and cold, almost the opposite of what is needed to win.
Brilliant but unstable consultant Jane Bodine (Bullock) is lured out of retirement by former colleague Nell (Ann Dowd), partly by the challenge but primarily because her archrival Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton) is working for the currently first-place candidate Rivera (Louis Arcella).
Pat has beaten Jane every time they’ve been pitted against each other, and Jane can’t resist one more opportunity to best him.
There is also something personal between them: Pat keeps flirting with Jane to throw her off balance or to renew a possible former romantic or sexual relationship. Or (likeliest) both.
Jane — who is bipolar and has a history that includes electroconvulsive therapy — arrives in Bolivia in a debilitating funk.
Only when she realizes that Castillo’s incapable of faking the warmth that voters respond to in his opponent does she come alive. There’s no transition: she snaps into action directly from her near-catatonia.
She instructs the candidate (and the rookies on her team) (and us) that the one thing that trumps warmth is fear. Castillo has to claim that he is the only one with the strength and experience — he had served a term as president a decade earlier — to combat Bolivia’s fatally threatening crisis.
That there is no crisis so dire is no stumbling block; he just claims there is over and over in thundering tones. It’s a blunter version of some of Donald Trump’s current tactics.
Despite the serious political and ethical issues that underlie the story, “Our Brand is Crisis” plays mostly as a comedy — intermittently a very funny one, which may not be enough for some viewers. (One of the tricks Jane uses against Candy is hilariously brilliant.)
The primary asset in the film is Bullock’s performance. Her manic episodes are daunting and impressive; in her quieter moments, her ongoing life crisis plays out in her eyes.
Thornton is good, but he has way less to do. His casting immediately suggests James Carville, though in the real world Carville was on the opposite side. Anthony Mackie — as the most likeable character on Jane’s team — fares at least as well. Without him, the tone might be much grimmer than it is.
The film flies by, and the complex political machinations are presented clearly. Only the sorta kinda “happy” ending feels unlikely — even the parts that are taken directly from the real history.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).