Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Ides of March (2011)

When a film is adapted from a screenplay, you expect it to be talkie, static and stilted. You don't expect it to be soulless. Since a playwright can't rely on gestures and subtlety to inform his audience, the characters themselves are generally more expressive.

That's not the case in Ides, a screenplay based on the 2008 play Farragut North. The characters talk, but we know less about who they are when the movie ends than we did 10 minutes in. That could be a good thing, if it meant that their deceptions surprised and alienated us, revealing them to be frauds. But the problem with Ides is that very little is revealed, good or bad.

When a plot twists and contorts in ways that bend the imagination or the dialogue is razor ready, as so often happens with a David Mamet creation, it hardly matters if the characters lack personality. But this film is no Glengarry Glen Ross.

George Clooney plays Mike Morris, a governor running for the presidential office. He's fighting to win Democratic primaries to gain his party's nomination. His words are stirring and idealistic, both onstage and when he speaks privately when the cameras are off. His conviction seems genuine.

We are led to believe that's why Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the second in command in Morris' campaign, is drawn to him. Meyers works under campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the two seem to complement each other, with respective strengths that contrast and balance. Meyers says that Paul will do anything to win an election while he, Stephen, would do anything for what he believes in. What he, ostensibly, believes in is Morris and his commitment to building a better America for the lower and middle classes. Stephen seems to concede that he'll take moral short cuts, but only if it serves the greater good.

When Stephen is asked to meet with a rival campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the fact that he takes the meeting but doesn't tell anyone doesn't seem disloyal, because he hardly seems tempted by Duffy's offer to switch over to the opposing candidate's side. Moreover, he's skeptical of the information that Duffy is giving him about Morris' failing chances. As soon as one of Duffy's disclosures pans out, Meyers tells Paul and Morris that Duffy offered him a job immediately. So, they all appear to be working on the same side.

All of the characters, including Ida, a smiling, but coatthroat reporter played by Marisa Tomei are well acted, but not well defined. None of them are even as cold as Rahm Emanuel, but they aren't human either. We don't see them at home. The warmest moment we get is between Morris and his wife, in the backseat of a limo, as he explains to her that he won't make a deal that would win him the election if it means putting an unscrupulous Senator into a cabinet position. Morris' tone with her is affectionate, but that's the only glimpse of the personal the movie really offers. If the film was about politics, rather than people, the lack of character insight would be irrelevant. But this isn't a clever political drama. On that level, it's much less original and sharp than a single episode of The West Wing.

As he worries about Morris' poll numbers, Molly, a campaign volunteer flirts with Stephen. They take two tumbles in bed. Then he intercepts one of her phone calls from Mike Morris. When he demands to know why Morris is calling her at 2:30 a.m. in the morning, Molly haltingly says, "I'm in trouble." She says she slept with Morris in such oblique terms that I think I've stumbled into Advise and Consent or some other Allen Drury based film made 50 years ago when The Hays Code still had Hollywood in its censorious grip. When's the last time a woman ever said, "I'm in trouble" rather than, "I'm pregnant?" Molly goes further and reveals that Morris was returning her phone call because she'd contacted him to ask for $900. Why does she need 9 big ones from Morris. "Because I can't go to my father. We're Catholic." Huh?

This exchange reminded me of watching a 1930s film called Men in White with Clark Gable. We never saw anything romantic pass between Gable (a doctor) and his nurse. We just saw the nurse take off her white cap and gently place it on the sofa. From that we were supposed to know they slept together. Then, she died during a botched medical procedure. Because the staff kept wondering who the man involved was, we knew that that mysterious procedure had to be an abortion. Social decorum required you to be a genius back in those days to even have a hint of what the plot was about. For some reason, even though Molly was far from modest when she met Stephen and told him she wanted intercourse (in terms far less polite), when discussing her need for an abortion, she suddenly becomes very quaint and cryptic.

We met her as a forward person, who easily saw through Stephen's bluffs and took charge. As the daughter of a high-ranking Democratic official, she was not someone easily intimidated by Stephen, Morris or anyone else she considered as mere employees of her father. I'm not sure how she morphed into a quavering mass of passivity as soon as Stephen found out her relationship with Morris. It's like the character was written by two different, and unacquainted, people.

We don't know if Stephen is shocked by Molly's revelation or disappointed in Morris. Does Stephen think the man is less qualified to be president now that he's knocked up a 20year old volunteer? Gosling's intense, but impassive expression does not tell us and Stephen's words certainly never let on to what's going on inside of his head. He scrounges up $900 for Molly with amazing difficulty. Since Molly is the daughter of the head of the Democratic National Convention, you'd think she'd have rich friends who spend more than $900 on a pair of shoes that could help her out. It's not clear why Stephen, the guy she just propositioned a few days ago, is suddenly her only lifeline. But there he is driving her to the abortion clinic and making arrangements to pick her up after it's over.

Meanwhile, Meyers is unexpectedly fired by Paul, who says he knew as soon as Meyers met with Duffy that he couldn't trust him any longer. Meyers then runs to Duffy for a job. He's ready to throw Morris under the bus and Molly along with him. He promises Duffy that if Duffy hires him, he will give him massive dirt on Morris that will seal the campaign for Duffy's nominee. If I thought that Meyers was only turning on Morris because he now believed the man lacked the integrity to run the country anyway, the fact that he was about to expose Molly to scandal just to discredit Morris established that Meyer's actions had nothing to do with balancing judgment or ethics at all. He just wanted to get ahead, which is fine. Ruthless politicians are perfectly acceptable. The problem here is that the movie's point of view, to the extent that it has one, continues to treat Meyers with casual respect. He hasn't taken an evil turn, nor has he been revealed to have been a culprit all along. He's just a guy moving indifferently through a plot that has no compass at all, moral or otherwise.

Duffy resists Meyers pleas and won't hire him. He guesses that Morris has fired Meyers and now sees him as damaged goods. Meyers is the most brilliant campaign strategist out there, but Duffy doesn't need him, as long as he has ensured that the opponent won't have him either. Meyers realizes that Duffy has led him into a trap, knowing all along that Paul would fire Meyers as soon as he learned he and Duffy had spoken -- which Duffy also knew Meyers would disclose. Like any good con artist Duffy has predicted his opinions' every move with unrealistic precision. But the con is rather predestrian and unambitious. It's more Monopoly than House of Games. Meyers is so distraught over the fact he's now unemployed (though he could still find a consultant job that paid him $750,000) that he neglects to pick up Molly from the abortion clinic.

She takes herself home and learns from a colleague that Meyers has been fired and threatened to take Morris down on his way out. Fearing that the beans about her abortion will be spilled, she promptly commits suicide. Once again a shockingly dated twist that suggests the writers (one of whom was Clooney) knew more about dusty Peyton Place scripts than they did of Monica Lewinsky's life and times. Meyers gets to Molly's hotel room in time to see her corpse.

Angry and vengeful -- or not really either -- Meyers meets Morris in a darkened restaurant. For a moment he stands silhouetted in the doorway, ready for a High Noon showdown. He blackmails, Morris into firing Paul, making Meyers the head campaign manager and appointing a dirty Senator as Secretary of State if they win the election. So, power corrupts yet again. But that lesson is only entertaining if the corruption is unique or the corrupted are interesting.

Ides presents apathetic drivers navigating a too familiar road. We don't discover how far men will fall to climb up the ladder, because we don't know what convictions they held dear in the first place. Similarly, Molly was introduced as confident and cynical, too knowing to be undone by the threat of her abortion becoming public and shrewd enough to understand that her death would not spare her father embarassment. Indeed, as a staunch Catholic, her suicide would be as unacceptable to him as abortion was. So, we're not sure why she did what she did. We'd have to know more about her conscience to assume she was motivated by guilt or shame.

For me, the best line in the movie comes when Meyers tells treacherous reporter Ida, "you're my best friend." She probably thinks the words are sarcastic, but we know they're the truth. Meyers has no friends, but we don't know if that's cause for regret, irony or humor. The movie gives us no gauge with which to measure character losses, gains or even status quo. There's no need to beware the Ides of March, but you won't be wowed by it either.