The Ides of March
‘Ides’ falls short, but fault is not in stars
Are you sitting down? George Clooney has some shocking news: Politics is a dirty business. Candidates make promises they don’t intend to keep, elected officials are motivated by greed and lust, and - hold onto your hats - campaign managers sometimes act unethically. “The Ides of March’’ trembles at the indignity of it all.
That the trembling is as watchable as it is - and “Ides’’ rolls slickly along its pre-assembled tracks - is a testimony to professionalism, on the screen and behind it. Clooney not only stars as Mike Morris, a fictional Pennsylvania governor running for the Democratic presidential nomination, he co-wrote the script with longtime accomplice Grant Heslov, and he directed as well. In each arena, he proves to be a trusted figure. The filmmaking is shallow but assured, the star charisma thoughtful but undimmed. As for the character, I’d vote for Mike Morris. Actually, I wish I could.
Clooney’s also secure enough to surround himself with scene-stealers. As Stephen Myers, a fast-rising campaign whiz, Ryan Gosling caps a year in which he has come into his own as a commercial and creative force. Stephen is the film’s lead role, and his education in the realities of political life is brutal and complete. As soon as the character lets slip that he truly believes in his candidate this time, we can see the handwriting on the wall: The kid’s a goner.
His boss, campaign manager Paul Zara, is a highly functioning human wreck, which means he has to be played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Each political race has accreted another layer of nicotine-stained self-disgust around the character’s soul; Paul and his opposite number, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), have the battle-scarred psyches of aging whores. Duffy works for Morris’s rival for the nomination, a Bible-thumping Dixiecrat (Mike Mantell), and sees in Stephen a promising cog for his machine. Or is there a larger plan afoot?
“The Ides of March’’ works hard to seem down and dirty, but it’s naive at heart, and its only points of reference are other campaign movies: “The Best Man,’’ “Primary Colors,’’ “The Candidate.’’ That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. As long as the various characters keep their end-games tucked safely in their back pockets, “The Ides of March’’ is derivative but fun - a “West Wing’’ episode with more marbles rolling around the board.
Giamatti and Hoffman, larcenous players both, should by all rights cancel each other out, but they add to the film’s air of chicanery-lite. Marisa Tomei manages to make you forget her nosy political reporter is a walking cliche (Jewish, works for The New York Times, wears glasses - oh, and her hair’s a mess), and the smaller roles are sparked with verve: Max Minghella as Stephen’s ambitious underling, Jennifer Ehle as Morris’s gently scheming wife.
And here comes Evan Rachel Wood as Molly Stearns, a lissome campaign intern with bedroom eyes for the hero. What’s her agenda? Wood’s a good enough actress to keep Stephen and us on our toes. Molly is a cynical insider - her dad’s the head of the DNC - who’s not yet formed as a person or a woman. She’s practically jailbait and maybe the arresting officer, too, and Gosling lets us see the thrill of not knowing flicker in the shadows of Stephen’s poker face.
The suspense of watching Ryan Gosling in a movie is adjusting to his rhythms, which are always at least a half-beat behind those of the other actors. In “Crazy, Stupid, Love,’’ that delay rendered him both sexy and sad; in “Drive,’’ sad and scary. Here, Stephen’s hesitation - the pause in his speech as the mind whirrs quietly ahead - makes all the other characters assume he’s a genius. And often he is. It’s also the mark of a newbie who’s making it up as he goes along.
Clooney and Heslov’s screenplay - adapted from the stage play “Farragut North’’ by Beau Willimon - thunders with sardonic bromides and Beltway fast-talk. The dialogue never feels less than movie-ish, though: That’s the pleasure of it and the disappointment. “The Ides of March’’ is structured as a series of heated confrontations, some sexual, others ethical, and each character gets his or her moment in the dank sun. (Has there ever been a browner movie?) Hoffman has a pip of a monologue where all of Paul’s bile spills over, and even Clooney’s Morris, the candidate too good to be true, reveals his shadow-self, imperious and out for blood.
The movie keeps piling on the twists, though, and after a while fatigue sets in. You need to be a card counter to follow the mathematics of who’s ahead and who’s getting played, and that would be fine if the house paid out at the end. But a third-act tragedy feels cooked-up and a bit too much plot hangs on a character walking past an open hotel room door at a critical juncture. “The Ides of March’’ rests its moral outrage on a rickety podium of glibness and coincidence. It passes the character test, but it can’t go the distance.