David Gordon Green’s Our Brand is Crisis is an unusual animal. On some level, it’s a conventional underdog story. But it’s set in such a foreign locale – literally and figuratively – that the root material might not interest the casual moviegoer lured by the promise of a sassy Sandra Bullock fixing another problem for a male character in need of emotional assistance. This time around, Bullock is trying to Blind Side the entire country of Bolivia… and maybe learn a little bit about herself in the process.
Our Brand is Crisis held its world premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, and was introduced by no less than Bullock – the clear lead – and her two producers, Grant Heslov and George Clooney. The fact that the duo’s production label, Smokehouse, backed the film should tell you the type of politi-comedy the movie tries to trade in. (Their combined credits range from Argo to The Monuments Men, though Crisis falls closer in line to The Men Who Stare at Goats, or a funnier spin on The Ides of March.)
Sandra Bullock, in full feisty mode, plays "Calamity" Jane Bodine, a one-time ace political strategist who put herself in exile after burning out on one too many campaigns. She’s lured back into the fold, though, by a team eager to back Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), a potential candidate in the race for Bolivia’s presidency who is far behind the leader but has time to catch up. Bodine isn’t interested – until she learns that the frontrunner in the race is being guided behind the scenes by Jane’s chief rival, the manipulative Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, stealing every scene). With the players placed around the board, the race for the Bolivian presidency is on.
Let me ask you a question. Who is your dog in this particular fight? The way that Our Brand is Crisis presents itself, we clearly are meant to champion Sandra Bullock. The actress knows how to plays the frazzled fighter, and Jane Bodine is another shade of the crass, abrasive, messy and slapsticky character she has played on screen for years. Casting Billy Bob Thornton opposite Jane only helps us jump on Castillo’s bandwagon. We want this guy to win – and we want Jane to finally notch a win against the strategist who routinely has handed her her ass, professionally, over the years.
But why? Do we care about Bolivian politics, or Castillo’s motivations to run for office? Not really. And neither does Jane, which is one major thing that keeps Our Brand is Crisis at an arm’s length. Both Jane and Castillo are weird dogs to back in a fight we have little interest in. There’s no urgency to the election. And even if Jane loses to Candy, the only real stake is her ego, which would be bruised once again. But watching Our Brand is Crisis is a lot like tuning in to watch a well-paced sporting event between two teams you don’t follow. The outcome’s rarely an interest.
Crisis finds its comedy in its outliers. Scoot McNairy is hysterical as one of Castillo’s previous campaign advisors, who’s often operating in his own world and unaware that he’s part of a heated political race. (Anthony Mackie plays a similar role, but has nothing of substance to do here.) The rapport between Bullock and Thornton is delicious, and the film could have used more of them interacting. But David Gordon Green pads his feature with bouts of amateur physical comedy, though if I’m being honest, the one scene I found the most unnecessary – involving a bus race where Bullock drops her pants and moons her competition – played the loudest with our crowd. Like I said, an unusual animal.