When Sandra Bullock is fully engaged with her role as a hotshot political consultant in “Our Brand is Crisis,” her performance is incandescent.
When scenes call for her to dial back on the intensity or when director David Gordon Green puts the spotlight on other characters, the picture loses focus and drifts.
Set in Bolivia, “Our Brand is Crisis” was inspired by a 2005 documentary of the same title. It chronicles the efforts of a team of U.S. political consultants headed by James Carville to resuscitate the floundering 2002 presidential campaign of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, a former president attempting a comeback after several years out of power.
Portuguese actor Joaquim de Almeida plays the candidate, named Castillo, a lightly fictionalized version of Sánchez de Lozada, who at the start is way down in the polls.
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There is no Carville equivalent per se, as Bullock’s character, Jane Bodine, operates as a gun for hire employed by a consultant team that doesn’t seem to have a leader, a significant flaw that contributes to the unfocused feeling.
Billy Bob Thornton, playing a rival operative working for an opposition candidate, has a lean and hungry Carvillelike look — gimlet-eyed, head shaved bald. Ethically challenged and utterly ruthless, he functions as a kind of anti-conscience to Jane. Green injects him into the story at regular intervals to remind Jane of her failings (they’ve faced off in prior campaigns, and his candidates have always beaten hers), and to goad her into following her impulses to do whatever it takes to win, principles be damned.
After a listless start, the picture comes alive when Jane, her competitive juices flowing, delivers a wow of a speech to her client and associates, harshly defining the campaign’s many weakness and lasering in on a path to victory. Which basically amounts to heavily scripting the candidate’s every utterance to emphasize that Bolivia is facing an economic crisis and only a flawed fighter (he lacks people skills) can overcome the difficulties. The other prong of her battle plan is to undercut the opposition with deviously delivered doses of character assassination.
Dirty dealings are done, crises of conscience are experienced by Jane. But with all other characters insubstantially drawn and with the theme of arrogant outsiders tinkering with a Latin nation’s political processes (the consultants don’t even speak Spanish) handled with unimaginative imprecision, “Crisis” squanders its intriguing premise.
OUR BRAND IS CRISIS
☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie and Joaquim de Almeida.
Director: David Gordon Green.
Running time: 1:48.
Rated: R, for language including some sexual references.