Our Brand Is Crisis is the fictionalized tale of the 2005 election in Bolivia that resulted in a government that was overthrown six months later. It’s the story of the campaign to elect former president Pedro Castillo fifteen years after he last held office – or rather, it’s the story of the battle between the genius campaign strategists for Castillo and his most popular opponent, a populist named Rivera, and the tricks dirty or otherwise that are employed by both.
Sadly, despite characters modeled on real and effective political figures (the film’s Calamity Jane Bodine is modeled after James Carville), the film is slowly paced and never quite makes up its mind whether it’s a breezy comedy, a sly political satire, or a serious drama. Sometimes a movie can be all over the place and the performances can save it. That’s not the case here.
When Jane (Sandra Bullock) is approached in her rustic cabin in the mountains by two of Castillo’s team (Ann Dowd, Anthony Mackie), she is unwilling – until they mention that the other guy has Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton) on his team.
Part of what could be a breezy comedy is the way that Jane takes seemingly forever to acclimate to Bolivia’s altitude – it’s hard to see her being a genius for far too long. Once she does get it together, there’s friction because Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) is not just an arrogant member of the upper part of the upper class, he wants nothing to do with her ideas.
Castillo is way behind in the polls so, eventually, he comes around to Jane’s way of thinking – but then, it seems like the Rivera camp has resorted to dirty tactics, which opens up Jane’s game plan. To that end, she brings in sullen investigative wiz Leblanc (Zoe Kazan).
Slowly, Castillo begins to gain in the polls (a graph pops up from time to time to show the candidates and their projected percentage of the vote). The middle section of the movie details some of the events precipitated by Jane and Candy’s tactics. Here, the movie seems to want to be the sly satire lurking beneath the breezy comedy façade. Unfortunately, the pacing is so slow that the gags seem stale by the time they’re actually played out.
Even elements like the kid who works for Castillo’s campaign because fifteen years before, Castillo had plucked him out of the crowd for a photo op, seems off. Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco) comes across, most of the time, as the wide-eyed kid working for his hero but – it may be the fault of the direction; it may be the kid’s eagerness – it feels like there’s something off about him. It’s distracting in a way that isn’t good for the film.
The back-and-forth between Jane and Candy comes off as a bit weird, too. Each does what they can to get inside the other’s head, but the mind games seem forced – and neither Thornton nor Bullock really come across as anything more than plot points being driven by dialogue – they could be sleepwalking.
Then there’s the final act, in which Our Brand Is Crisis sheds its efforts at comedy, satire and commentary and becomes rather turgid drama.
For all that they’re supposed to be good at their jobs; Nell (Ann Dowd) and Ben (Anthony Mackie) don’t really get much to do. They’re underwritten in such a way as to make their presence pretty much superfluous. And don’t get me started on Scoot McNairy’s videographer/director Buckley, who has just one trait – being annoying.
Until I checked my list of best and worst films of the year so far, I thought Our Brand Is Crisis might have been the worst movie I’ve seen in 2015. Fortunately for it, the year has also included Fantastic Four, Mortdecai and Strange Magic. So there’s some small comfort for it there.
In terms of being timely – both the recent Canadian election and the ongoing U.S. presidential campaigns have employed tactics at least as cynical as anything in Our Brand Is Crisis – the film could be seen to make a statement. If only it knew what that statement was and how it wanted to make it.
Final Grade: D-
Photos by Patti Perret/Courtesy of Warner Bros. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment