Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Ides of March Is A Shallow Exploration of American Politics That Wastes So Many Talented Actors


George Clooney is a great actor. He's usually always a charming presence in whatever he pops up in but he's especially stellar playing more troubled characters that serve as a subversion of his movie star persona, like in Up in the Air or in his outstanding voice work in Fantastic Mr. Fox. He also seems like a decent fella in real life and his 2005 directorial effort Good Night and Good Luck was a well-made piece of historical drama cinema. All of that being said, Clooney's attempts to direct and/or star in films that have some kind of sociopolitical message in the 2010s (Suburbicon, Money Monster, even Tomorrowland) have been a big o'l miss, Clooney always ends up being a part of films that have really nothing need to add to the conversation, they just add surface-level observations at best and downright nonsensical takes on real-world problems in the worst instances like Suburbicon.

The Ides of March is, alas, another example of how Clooney's talents (both as an actor and a director) should not be spent on modern-day films that try to offer up pearls of wisdom on modern-day sociopolitical issues. This time, Clooney directs a yarn about American politics centered on junior campaign manager Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) who helps run a campaign for prospective Democratic Presidential candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney). Meyers and his team, which also includes primary campaign manager Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), are trying to win the endorsement of a critical Senator when Meyers gets an offer to sit down and talk with a rival campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). This sit-down leads to a domino effect that ends up sabotaging everything Meyers stands for and leads to him discovering that his hero, Morris, is more corrupt than he feared.

Working from a screenplay penned by George Clooney, Beau Willimon and Grant Heslov, The Ides of March is a spectacularly shallow movie. Its central conceit as a thoughtful political thriller is that politics is a corrupt business and that's basically it. It doesn't bother to actually tackle specific issues facing American politics and the politicians that inhabit that domain, rather, it just goes for a broad narrative about an idyllic individual (Gosling's character in this case) realizing how corrupt the real world can be. There's really nothing new or insightful in how The Ides of March approaches U.S. politics yet the dreadfully serious affair goes about with its story like its delivering the definitive TED talk on the corruption found in American political campaigns. The whole thing even ends on a shot of somber morally compromised Ryan Gosling sitting in a chair as Clooney, through voice-over, talks about the importance of moral integrity. Nothing makes the final shot of a movie better like explicitly detailing the themes of the feature in clunky voice-over dialogue.

The extremely basic nature of how The Ides of March approaches political ideas seeps into its attempts to deliver twists and turns in its story too. Far too often the script tries to wring suspense out of scenarios the audience already knows the answer to, most notably when it shows Meyers being puzzled as to who possibly could have leaked to the New York Times that he met with Tom Duffy. Given that he told Paul Zara about that just a scene ago and Zara responded to it with visible frustration, it's clearly Zara who leaked the news. But the movie has to reach 102 minutes somehow so Meyers continues to be baffled as to who leaked that sit-down to the press, leaving the audience numerous steps ahead of the films lead character.

There are really no surprises to be found in the film's storyline, and unfortunately, that means the lone notable female character in the story, Stephen's love interest Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), gets to suffer a predictable fate of being killed off so that main male characters can have some plot motivation. The moment I saw her corpse laying out on the floor of her hotel room, I shouted "OH COME ONE!!" at the screen, it's such a tired narrative route to take, not to mention that it solidifies that Evan Rachel Wood never gets anything of substance to do in The Ides of March. That's the worst example of the trite nature of the screenplay but there's plenty of other instances where it's predictable nature makes it such a slog to get through.

Worst of all, there's nothing else that's really exceptional in the rest of the production to help mitigate the countless flaws in the script. Perhaps if the cinematography and direction were interesting, for instance, The Ides of March could work as a purely visual exercise. Alas, The Ides of March is as disposable on a visual level as it is on a writing level. Clooney can apparently only film conversations between characters in a medium-shot/reverse-medium-shot format that gets repetitive extremely quickly. Aside from one shot of Gosling entering a bar at night that takes a cue from dimly lit film noir cinematography, The Ides of March is a bland looking affair that films its various actors with little in the way of panache.

Speaking of actors, the worst part about The Ides of March is how it not only wastes so many talented actors, but how those actors are all perfectly cast in their respective roles. Phillip Seymour Hoffman as an experienced but weary campaign manager and Paul Giamatti as a slimy double-crossing campaign manager are especially perfect pieces of casting that should lead to these two character actor legends delivering outstanding performances. Giamatti and Hoffman, as well as other underserved members of the case, do what they can, but the poorly defined characters and plot don't give them anything to work with. Such brilliant casting deserved a better movie, as did any audience members who sat through The Ides of March. 

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