“Ides of March” just misses the mark

October 17, 2011

Like so many political candidates, "The Ides of March" makes a great stump speech (in the form of a trailer), but ultimately comes up short in delivering on its promise.

Director/cowriter/costar George Clooney has assembled a cast of some of the best American actors working today: Ryan Gosling, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright. They all laudably work within the confines of the script and their punctuated time on screen, and the political tumult in which the script soaks is both timely and timeless.

The ingredients are all in place for a top-shelf, old-fashioned adult drama, one that slowly builds from simmer to boil and is filled with tense face-offs where voices barely raise above a whisper and still pack a punch.

Yet "March" never rises above the sum of its parts for some reason.

Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, a young political upstart who's the second-in-command in the political campaign of Democratic candidate Mike Morris (Clooney). Directly above the political rookie is veteran campaign manager Paul Zara (played by Hoffman). For Zara, Morris is just another candidate, and this is just another campaign. But Morris sees something more. He's the ideal candidate whose campaign speeches transcend empty promises and, to Meyers, he's a game-changer.

Of course, Meyers stands to gain a great deal if Morris is elected, but he feels the country would gain even more with his victory. With polls in Morris' favor and the endorsement of a powerful senator about to be secured, things are looking sunny for the team. And, of course, that's when everything goes to hell.

Stephen gets a phone call from the opposition's campaign manager (played by Paul Giamatti), asking the young political whiz kid to switch teams, stating that there's some mud about to be slung that will be quite harmful to Morris. Complicating matters further is a flirty young intern (Evan Rachael Wood), who catches Stephen's attention and, well, we all know about young, flirty interns and politics, don't we?

There's obviously a storm cloud rolling over the Morris campaign, and it's one that can be viewed by a veteran New York Times political reporter (played by Tomei), who is quickly gathering the unraveling yarn.

This all sounds great written out, but as accomplished as Clooney is as a director, he never fully sells it as a complete package. As mentioned, the acting is uniformly strong, the dialogue is tight, and the salacious twists of inner politicking are enticing.

Still, as it all unfolded, I found it difficult to fully engage in its world. Maybe it was that no one as shrewd and savvy as Stephen could also be that naive to the dirtier tricks of the trade. The left-field revelation concerning the intern felt forced and out of bounds. And the climactic confrontation between Stephen and Morris lacked the sizzle that could make me care at all about the consequence. And in a film that focuses on meeting room melees and personal standoffs in uncomfortably close surroundings, authenticity is key, and "Ides" fails to muster it during pivotal points.

It's not enough to collapse the film entirely, but after watching it once, it certainly won't merit a second term on video.