Boy, have the critics got this one wrong.
David Gordon Green's political comedy "Our Brand is Crisis" is sharp and funny, well-acted all around and capped by a daringly understated performance from Sandra Bullock that may represent the finest work of her career. She's "Calamity" Jane Bodine, a once highly successful campaign manager who's taken herself out of the game after a string of losses to nemesis Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, oozing villainy). Longtime colleagues Nell (Ann Dowd) and Ben (Anthony Mackie) drive through the snow to her remote New England cabin to pitch her on their latest client: Castillo (pitch-perfect Joaquim de Almeida), the once and would-be President of Bolivia, who currently trails hope-y/change-y challenger Rivera by 28 points in an eight-man field. Who's Rivera's manager? Who else but Candy?
At length, Jane relents, unable to resist the chance, however slim, to get one over on Serpenthead. (Echoes of Mary Matalin and James Carville carom around the picture.) And, after a series of false starts, the race does tighten dramatically. (The eventual winning candidate secures less than 25% of the vote.) Peter Straughan's screenplay - based on the documentary of the same name by accomplished filmmaker Rachel Boynton - knows whereof it speaks. There are enough crossings and double-crossings, sabotage and self-sabotage, to leave you deliriously unsettled. I use the term "political comedy" advisedly. This is not the usual political satire, with fake ads and artificially amplified debates. Rather, it is character driven comedy in a fresh political setting.
Regular readers know how much I value quietude in performance, how much confidence I feel it takes to underplay scenes and how much stronger their impact as a result. Sandra Bullock - perhaps emboldened by her Oscar win for "The Blind Side" - no longer feels the need to emote to make us root for her; she knows we already do, and it liberates her to create, in Jane Bodine, one of the memorable characters of the year in film. Watch her face as Thornton's Pat Candy whispers into her ear how he's going to wipe the floor with her - or, toward the end, "spend several days jacking off thinking about you." She never turns to face him, just keeps smoking and looking down, letting him do his worst and absorbing it. Hear the years of pain and self-loathing in her line reading: "If I lose to Candy this time," she mutters, trailing off, "I swear to God…" And I must reiterate: the movie is deeply funny. Jane's response, after fucking up, when Nell offers that "[i]f they can you, I go too," is one for the ages. In addition to Dowd, Mackie and de Almeida, there is good work by Zoe Kazan as a black-ops negative researcher and Scoot McNairy as the team's low man.