70-Word Review for the Busy: The cast is a dream team—George Clooney as a charismatic candidate, Ryan Gosling as his savvy aide, Evan Rachel Woods as a flirty intern, Marisa Tomei as an opportunistic reporter, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti as blustery rival campaign managers.
Unfortunately, there’s more to Ides of March than top-notch performances. There’s a muddled message and, in the end, a failure to deliver on the film’s immense promise.
700-Word Review for the Procrastinators: I’m disappointed by Ides of March, and I’ve got only myself to blame.
The problem is that I was sure I would love this movie. It looked like a dark West Wing episode with an all-star cast, a biting commentary on Obama-era politics, a zeitgeist-seizing film that would leave director George Clooney laden with so many Oscars that he’d accidentally drop a few statues while stumbling down the red carpet back to his seat.
As it is, Ides of March is a good film.
But I didn’t want a good film. I wanted a game-changer. I held Ides of March to the same unreasonable standard to which Clooney held the Obama administration, so “good” doesn’t feel good. It feels like a cruel personal letdown.
Clooney plays the Obama-esque Mike Morris, a Democratic presidential hopeful in a hard-fought primary battle. Ryan Gosling is his cunning but principled junior campaign manager, working under senior campaign manager Philip Seymour Hoffman. The film gets moving when Paul Giamatti tries to woo Gosling away to work for Morris’s opponent.
I can’t believe that this is the first film I’ve seen featuring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti as rival campaign managers. They are perfect: loud, stout, and smart, with commanding presences and foul mouths. They come across as statesmen even when they’re spitting in your face, and as brutal cynics even when they’re making impassioned speeches about the virtue of loyalty. With any luck, Ides of March will inaugurate an entire Hoffman-Giamatti campaign rivalry genre, with every director trying their hand at it (and the occasional penny-pinching studio trying to make do with Oliver Platt and George Wendt).
But the Hoffman/Giamatti screen time is sadly limited, and for the rest of the film’s first half, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re watching nothing more than George Clooney’s political fantasy. His character is a charismatic Pennsylvania governor and Gulf War veteran who plans to tax the rich, end the wars, eliminate the death penalty, abolish the internal combustion engine to save the environment, and woo the masses with his atheism. He spends most of his screen time testing out soundbites built around sentiments like, “Who needs God when you’ve got the Constitution, am I right, America?” These lines earn wild approval in Ides of March, as they probably do when Clooney tries them out in front of the mirror. But having a presidential frontrunner with such an ambitiously liberal (read: unrealistic) platform undermines the tone of gritty realism.
Then, in a move that is slick but not convincing, Ides of March pivots from light to dark. The film’s second half is easy to swallow, but hard to digest—there are too many downfalls, too many crisscrossing betrayals. It’s fun to watch Gosling connect the dots, but it’s not clear that they make a coherent picture.
(For a fun game, try keeping tally of the backstabbings. I counted 8 knives sticking out of 5 backs, but I’m sure I missed some. Tracking the betrayals would make a good drinking game, if you’ve got a handle of rum, a lax usher at your theater, and a liver that can take a beating.)
Ides of March feels vaguely like a call to action, but hell if I know what action it’s calling for. Should we support the American dreamers like Morris, or reject them because in the end, they’re no different than the mudslinging mediocrities we’ve got now? Should we hold our leaders to stricter scrutiny, or stop scrutinizing their personal shortcomings (read: Monica Lewinsky scandals) at all? Should we resent Obama for not leading us to the Promised Land, or for tricking us into believing the Promised Land even exists? Ides of March ends in such a flurry that each of these interpretations finds support – but since the ideas contradict one another, it amounts to a wash.
Down to the final shot, the film seems to think it’s painted a clear and damning portrait of the American politician. Damning, maybe; but clear, not so much. Ides of March is too muddled to work as an allegory, and too allegorical to fully succeed as a story.