Review: “The Ides of March”

1. "The Ides of March" is classy, intelligent, lovingly crafted and serious-minded entertainment by talented, well-meaning people. It features one of Hollywood's most beloved, respected actors (George Clooney) filming a well-regarded stage play about classic themes of idealism, betrayal, opportunism and the weary cynicism of those who once believed. It is the type of movie that you are just happy exists. It is also, to be frank, dull as sh-t. "The Ides of March" plays like an old '50s teleplay, a heavy-handed morality tale that would be narrated by Peter Graves or something. It is also about as relevant to the world we currently live in as a newsreel about the typewriter that's only playable on a Betamax machine while riding a dirigible. I liked "The Ides of March" in the same way I liked my elderly social sciences teacher in high school, who held forth for hours on the secret successes of Lyndon Johnson but who didn't like Bob Dylan because he "can't sing." I liked "The Ides of March" the same way I liked Andy Rooney. The movie means no harm; you want to pat it on the head for trying so hard, for making it across the street by itself. But boy, you can just see the old dust collecting on the bottom of the screen. This movie was shot in Cobweb Vision.

2. Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Meyer, a 30-year-old hyper-efficient press secretary in the George Stephanopoulos vein for Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), an Obama-crossed-with-Howard-Dean idealist real-talking liberal-arugula-wet-dream candidate for President. Morris is amidst an intense battle for the Democratic nomination, and essentially, if he can win Ohio, he'll have the nomination in the bag. The first half-hour of the movie is the only part with any real zest, as Meyer works with his team (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Evan Rachel Wood, Max Minghella) to fight off the opposition (led by a greasy, very funny Paul Giamatti) and win the endorsement of an entitled runner-up (Jeffrey Wright) who can win them North Carolina and secure the delegates needed to win the nomination. The movie is clearly fascinated by the inner workings of a campaign, and the scenes in which Meyer (considered a genius in his field) instructs both his employees and the candidate himself on how to deal with the insane process of running for president have zing and pop. The movie looks like it's going well.

3. Then the plot kicks in. I knew I the movie was in trouble when Meyer started making speeches about how much of idealist he was, how he has to "believe" in his candidate, how he finally found "my guy" in Morris. I hope it is not too much of a spoiler to reveal that Morris, the perfect candidate, is not, in fact, a perfect candidate. Once the machinations of the story start churning, you can almost see the movie start to get its feet stuck in the mud. The movie becomes less about the campaigns and anything Clooney and company might have to say about the modern political system -- a promising idea encapsulated by the movie's clever Obama poster homage -- and more about The Battle For Meyer's Soul, which is decidedly less interesting. This is particularly discouraging because of how Gosling plays Meyer, as a super-intense, ambitious near-android. This technique of quiet focus worked in, say, "Drive," but here, the transition of Meyer into a more venal political operator lacks much surprise; you spend most of the movie half-expecting Gosling to brain his enemies with a hammer anyway. This Gosling is no babe in the woods, so the idea that he was even an "innocent" feels more theoretical than actual.

4. Once the pieces are in motion, "The Ides of March" turns into a fairly conventional political thriller, but with lower stakes: The movie never quite makes us believe Morris as a real, palpable candidate, and therefore we're never really invested in whether or not he wins his primary and becomes president. And, honestly, in this day and age, it's a little amazing how shocked, shocked!, "The Ides of March" is to learn that politics is not a valiant search for truth and justice but, in fact, mercenary operatives looking out only for themselves. (That's to say: It's like every other industry on earth.) Talk about your babe in the woods: Clooney seems to want us to have a reaction to the compromises people have to make to grasp power that's something other than "Yeah, duh, it's politics." I don't think it's overly cynical to assume that the sorts of events that happen in "The Ides of March" surely happen all the time -- if perhaps not in as exaggerated, time-compressed form -- and not be all that taken aback by it. Duh, it's politics. What did you think happened here?

5. Listen, I don't hate "The Ides of March." A movie like this, with this much talent on hand, working its tail off, is near impossible to hate. Gosling, even if his tone is off, is still a magnetic screen presence, and Hoffman, while playing a familiar tune for him, is still caustically earnest and likable. It's also one of the better performances I've seen Clooney give: It's a kick to see him play a guy who everybody adored but harbors secrets that would break him. It's just kinda fun to see him play around with the notions of a bad guy; he and Gosling have an electric scene toward the end of the film that just about salvages the whole thing, telling hard truths that the rest of the movie prefers to disguise with plot twists. "The Ides of March" is well-produced and well-acted middlebrow entertainment, a political "expose" that will shock only pearl-clutchers and naive dopes. I enjoyed it, for what it was, but it's a slog, a movie that legitimately asks you to be outraged at the fact that politics is not just about the well-being of the average citizen. "The Ides of March" is right to be outraged by this, and the rest of us are probably wrong not to be. But we're not. We're not at all.

Grade: B-