I've been here long enough now that I'm edging into the territory of getting to see movies that have been released since I left the States, and actually not knowing anything about them. Which is nice. Most movies are vastly improved by having no foreknowledge of what's going to happen, and The Ides of March is one such movie. So I don't want to give away too much - even though you have quite possibly already seen it - but at the same time, it's hard to talk about my impressions without mentioning some of the major plot aspects (which are quite possibly only a surprise to me anyhow, but still). So I'll do my best, mmmkay?
The thing about this movie is that it's trying to tell two different and only slightly related stories. Now, the conjunction of those stories is actually a very interesting one, that could have made for a phenomenal film if handled more skillfully, but in this case, the movie really only managed to pull one of them off well. What makes the movie extra intriguing though, is that it perhaps unavoidably seems like it wants to make certain political statements, but its plot also serves to undercut those very ambitions.
The centerpiece of the movie is Ryan Gosling (so hot right now), who plays a guy working on George Clooney's presidential campaign.* George Clooney is every liberal's wet dream. This is where the movie clearly has certain political aspirations. It wants to imagine a Democrat running for president who can admit to being atheist, and say things like 'You might panic and call it Socialist or the redistribution of wealth, but I will not stand by and watch the wealth get distributed to the richest people,' etc. It's this kind of hope that if you hear someone in a movie say it, it will be a little closer to coming true. I think this is actually a good plan, and exactly what movies should do (I've said it before, I'll say it again: go read Herbert Marcuse's Aesthetic Dimension). So Ryan Gosling is a True Believer in what a wonderful president George Clooney is gonna be. There are clear echoes to Obama's campaign here, and actually, I could swear that Clooney adopts certain aspects of Obama's body language and mannerisms (and does it terrifyingly well). So at first, if you know nothing about the movie, you might think that this is going to be an inspiring political utopia type story. Seriously, about 30 minutes in I remarked to my friend that this was basically like watching the politics version of porn.
But if you thought that's what the movie was gonna be about, you - like me - should have realized that The Ides of March would not be an appropriate title for such a film. So, of course, the other shoe drops. Actually, two of them. The first sub-plot involves - surprise, surprise - a young female intern. D'oh! Cue the first story line, kinda - the crisis of faith**. This would probably be pretty predictable and uninteresting, but luckily, there's a second sub-plot - a series of dramatic turns which threaten to cost Ryan Gosling his job, and which lead to some serious machinations, revealing a rather uglier side of politics. This is the much more successful part of the film, and the one it devotes more of its energy towards. The first one, unfortunately, it doesn't quite pull off, because you're not entirely sold on Ryan Gosling's good faith in the beginning, and you're not entirely sure whether his crisis actually is one, and if so, whether it has more to do with the latter set of issues than the former. In other words, is Ryan Gosling in it for ideals, or is he looking out for number one first and foremost? Or do these two plots mutually inflect each other in some sort of causal fashion? This would be a fascinating set of issues to explore, but the movie doesn't pull it off. It's a great pity, because that would have made the difference between a generally entertaining and somewhat interesting film and a real masterpiece. I'm inclined to blame this on George Clooney's directing, because while Ryan Gosling may be the it boy of the moment***, as far as I'm concerned, he proved his worth in Half Nelson - he could pull off this role if he needed to.
But it's still a pretty good movie. Evan Racheal Wood****, in my opinion, gave a pretty unimpressive performance as the intern, but the script wasn't helping her much. The movie did succeed, however, in once again reminding us all that the number one rule of politics is "don't fuck the interns" - which of course makes you think man, why are politicians so dumb as to keep getting caught in these various sex scandals? - but what is more impressive, it also really highlights just how messed up the whole sleeping with interns scene really is, not to mention the appalling sexism behind it. I mean, I'm getting to be more and more of an embittered feminist these days, so maybe I just really noticed it, but I think there's something skillful about the film's portrayal of it. There's a long pan of a young intern carrying a tray of coffees at one point in the film that is pretty incredible as a subtle yet totally withering critique.
Overall, not a bad movie at all. Much better than the usual fare (in Ankara that is), but I'd say it's probably worth renting no matter where you live.
*Here's the deal: there are some actors, like Ryan Gosling and George Clooney, who will always be themselves to me. I don't care what role they're playing, I'm still gonna say things like "Look out Ryan Gosling! That girl is trouble!" as I'm watching. That isn't to say they're not good actors. It's just that they've reached that point. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, intriguingly, has not reached that point for me, but that also might be because his name takes too long to say.
**This actually made me think of a play I saw at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in early 2010, The Good Negro - I hadn't been that impressed with it at the time, but I find myself thinking of it occasionally. That was actually a really good play. Worth reading, or seeing, if you get the chance.
***I have been deluged with links to various Ryan Gosling tumblrs in the last few days. I'm mostly over it, and I kind of thought I was mostly over Ryan Gosling as a result - I was sort of edging that way after watching Blue Valentine and Crazy Stupid Love, not that he's bad in either of those movies, but I was getting somewhat weary of just how lovable he always seems to be, and I was worried I'd feel that way watching this. And I didn't. Partly because he's not the usual saintly character - though it has to be said, he is slightly less convincing when he isn't being lovable. On the other hand, now that he's become such a big deal, I'm more intrigued in watching him and trying to figure out why. One thing I noticed this time is that he has the faintest hint of a lazy eye. Which normally really, really creeps me out, but he manages to make it work. It gives him the vaguest suggestion of a vacant stare, but he pulls it off - it becomes a kind of dumb puppy quality. The other thing I noticed is he has this thing, when he's staring into someone's face, he's actually moving his eyes a lot, not gazing deep into their eyes, but trying, it seems, to look at as much of their face as he can, which makes it seem like he's obsessively, excuse me, lovingly, trying to memorize every detail.
Incidentally, yes, Paul Giamatti and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are also both in this movie, and their performances are pretty much totally forgettable. I really suspect it's a Clooney-as-director problem. Sorry George.
****Ok, this is not generally the kind of thing I really notice, but damn, she did not look like a 20 year old. There's actually a scene where Ryan Gosling is guessing her age, and I had her pegged at 26. The internet tells me she turned 25 in September. In the movie though, she says 22, and I thought to myself "With that skin? I don't think so." Which surprised me - that I had that thought, I mean - but I think it's more a testament to the fact that I'm noticing lately that my skin is aging and I'm not happy about it. Yes, I know, it's the cigarettes. But anyways, Evan Racheal Wood's skin is not looking so good in the movie, and all the foundation they slathered onto her does not help one bit.