Sandra Bullock's role as a cynical political consultant in Our Brand Is Crisis is viewed as a forward step for women in Hollywood since it was originally written for a man.
What that gender switch does for the movie isn't nearly as laudable.
Bullock plays "Calamity" Jane Bodine, whose take-no-prisoners approach to politics made her a pariah after a dirty trick went too far. Jane is loosely based on real-life campaigner James Carville, a famous skeletal face, and Our Brand Is Crisis is "inspired by" Rachel Boynton's 2005 documentary of the same name.
Three years earlier, Carville joined U.S. political mercenaries in Bolivia, hired to boost the sagging presidential hopes of a despised candidate. Boynton's movie revealed an ideological invasion as Carville's first-world manipulations led to bittersweet victory.
Fast-forward a decade to Our Brand Is Crisis, the creatively massaged Hollywood edition. Carville's crude hubris is softened to Bullock's wheelhouse; Miss Less-Then-Congeniality but with issues generating sympathy. It's a good enough performance, given the star tailoring of Peter Straughan's screenplay, right down to Jane's see-the-light climax.
Muddling things even more, Billy Bob Thornton snatches away the movie by doing a devilish impression of — wait for it — James Carville, as the opposition's campaign strategist (after previously playing a Carville-type in the Clintonesque Primary Colors.) Bald and bawdy, unfiltered in speech and deeds, Thornton's Pat Candy is the best reason to see Our Brand Is Crisis, to get a sense of the characters making the story so fascinating to begin with, in Boynton's hands.
Straughan must serve two masters, the truth and expectations for a movie star like Bullock. Director David Gordon Green isn't much help, crafting another of his frequently nondescript works. Green is often complimented for leaping from low comedy (Pineapple Express, Your Highness) to high art (Joe, Prince Avalanche) when maybe he should stick to one lane for a while, just to develop audience rapport.
Bullock and Thornton are solidly supported by Anthony Mackie as the advisor pulling Jane from self-exile into action, and Joaquim de Almeida as her suavely disinterested candidate. Zoe Kazan amuses as a mousy hacker, sort of a girl with a press-on dragon tattoo. Our Brand Is Crisis shows flashes of insight cribbed from reality, nibbling the edges of satire without ever taking a big bite.
Flipping a role's gender from James to Jane is a nice move. But let's all agree that writing better roles for women is what's really needed. Plus better endings for all actors than what Our Brand Is Crisis offers only because it's a lovable star like Bullock. That sound you hear is Carville cackling.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.