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Sandra Bullock's Identity 'Crisis'

A tale of political partisanship tries to have it both ways

Our Brand is Crisis

Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

Ann Dowd, Sandra Bullock and Anthony Mackie star in 'Our Brand Is Crisis'

Rating: R

Run Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

Stars: Sandra Bullock, Joaquim de Almeida, Ann Dowd, Billy Bob Thornton

Director: David Gordon Green

Our Brand Is Crisis, Sandra Bullock's new film about American political strategists helping a Bolivian presidential candidate rebrand himself, could have been a hilarious movie that said serious things about the nature of politics. As it is, the picture mopes along with a glum outlook on human nature in general and politics in particular. When it occasionally tries to break through the gloom and doom, the resulting wacky scenes seem borrowed from another movie.

Part of the problem is that Our Brand Is Crisis is based on a 2005 documentary of the same name, which chronicled American spin doctor James Carville's bid to elevate an actual candidate into Bolivia's top spot. By setting this largely fictionalized version of the original film in a real country that suffered real damage following the election in question, director David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche) and writer Peter Straughan (The Men Who Stare at Goats) invoke a gravitas that makes the film's lessons go down like castor oil, not cherry-flavored cough syrup.

When we first meet Bullock as a legendary political fixer named Jane, she's long retired from the scene, having burned out after one too many election losses. Wooed back into action by an old colleague (Ann Dowd), Jane is soon en route to La Paz, where, at 12,000 feet, she suffers debilitating altitude sickness. Narratively, it takes a bit too long for Jane to recover. Once she does, however, she's a politico dynamo, barking pithy orders and spouting cynical political bromides like a cross between Ben Hecht and Aaron Sorkin.

When Jane is not speechifying, she browbeats the candidate (Portuguese star Joaquim de Almeida, unforgettable from Clear and Present Danger), hectors her staff and occasionally stares into the distance with a meaningful gaze. Soon she meets up with the man handling her guy's chief competitor: It's Jane's longtime nemesis (and apparent onetime lover) Pat Candy. This fellow is played by Billy Bob Thornton — who, with his shaved head and bug eyes, seems born to channel his character's obvious real-life model, James Carville.

The marginal fun to be had here comes when Jane and Pat use their intimate mutual knowledge to subvert each other's campaign. But the film should have focused on the pair's constant one-upmanship. A steady escalation of hostilities between the two stars would have put their comic gifts to better use; it also would have done a better job of illustrating the cynicism of professional political activism — something that Bullock's sad-eyed staring out of various windows fails to achieve.

And that's a shame, for Bullock and Thornton display intriguing chemistry in their first few moments together. As the film unspools, however, their scenes all hit the exact same notes, and we never really become invested in their complicated relationship.

The viewer's best remedy? Seek out the original Our Brand Is Crisis: It's an important filmed document of everything that can go wrong when political ambition trumps morality. As for the fictionalized version in theaters now, view it as an object lesson in what happens when earnestness displaces a film's responsibility to entertain.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.

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