The Ides of March had Oscar-bait written all over it: Directed and co-written by Oscar-winner George Clooney, starring fellow winners Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei and nominees Ryan Gosling (who has starred in one of every three movies released in 2011) and Paul Giamatti, it should've been a slam dunk for nominations, but pretty much sank without a trace at the box office, shrugged off by the critics? What happened?
Gosling is a hot shot campaign consultant to Clooney, the Democrat (what else?) governor of Pennsylvania who is running for President and whose campaign is working on Ohio. Clooney's candidate is such a paragon of liberal tropes that he makes Obama look like a grubby Republican and if a conservative filmmaker was making this movie, it would've been an obvious satire of the Utopian blather Democrats spew. (e.g. Clooney says that we can prevent wars in the Middle East by having cars that don't use oil, so if elected he will command that all cars in a decade be alternative energy only, as if all that's holding this magical rainbow and unicorn fart-powered dream cars from happening is a lack of some emperor-wizard decreeing it be done.) For all his awesomeness, though, the nomination isn't in the bag as his undefined primary opponent whom we're told no one likes is still challenging, so he desperately needs the endorsement and delegates held by Jeffrey Wright, who isn't letting them go without extracting a plum gig for himself.
Gosling adores Clooney - he's a True Believer - but he's getting nibbles from the opposing camp and takes a meeting with Giamatti, which pisses off Hoffman and sets off a chain of events that intertwine with a scandal skeleton in Clooney's closet that eventually leads to an actual body being found. As Gosling sinks into the mud, his determination to drag everyone else down with him leads to an underwhelming conclusion.
The problem with The Ides of March isn't it's lefty politics - to hear howlers about how the poor decent meek Democrats need to learn how to fight dirty like the mean old Republicans and for left-wing looney bin MSNBC to be shown as a legit news outfit was to be expected going in - but how dull the scandal is and how it reflects on the characters. I suspect that Clooney and company wanted to make a statement about how politics corrodes the souls of good men, but they're too in love with government and power to make the indictment stick. (It's be like me trying to make a movie about how pizza and hot Asian babes are killing baby pandas and that's a bad thing.) A scorched-earth artist like Paddy Chayefsky (whose Network is my 2nd favorite film of all time and still rings true 35 years later) would've argued that evil men go into politics because they're too fat for robbing gas stations.
The performances are all top-notch, if not Oscar-grade, though I'm still baffled as to why Gosling is so adored. He just comes off too blank for me. Clooney is a good director and the script adapted from a play is OK, but the way the story loses gravitas when it should be upping the stakes and the makers unwillingness to really put their politics under an unbiased magnifying glass just makes the compelling parts of the plot less so.
Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.