Every once in a while, we'll take an enjoyable-but-not-flawless movie and humbly suggest five little alterations. With our help, it'll be JUST right. (Warning: There will be SPOILERS.)
"The Ides of March" had everything going for it. George Clooney was directing and co-starring (and co-writing) in this timely political thriller, and he had assembled a who's-who of respected actors for his ensemble, including Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. So why isn't it better? We've checked out the poll numbers, Mr. Clooney, and we have five suggestions to improve this particular campaign.
1. Replace Gosling. We know how harsh that sounds, but hear us out. We love Gosling -- he's been great in just about everything he's been in -- but his best roles ("Drive," "Half Nelson," "Blue Valentine") have found him tapping into the darker side of his characters. Even when the people he plays want to be good eggs, they get in their own way, dragged down by their demons or personal failings. So while he's quite good as the smart, idealistic political operative Stephen Myers, it's hard to fully feel the tragedy of his descent into cynicism because, well, the guy's played by Ryan Gosling. That edge is there from the beginning, so the character change isn't that dramatic. We couldn't help but wonder how Chris Pine, who played Stephen in the L.A. production of the original play "Farragut North," would have fared. He's not as good an actor as Gosling, but he's got the boyish, wide-eyed naivety that the role requires. (Ironically, that link to a review of the L.A. show suggests that Stephen in the play is much more cold-hearted than the one in the movie. Maybe Pine and Gosling should have switched productions.)
2. Figure out Evan Rachel Wood's deal. One of the big problems with "The Ides of March" is that the first minute that Wood shows up on screen as the flirtatious campaign intern Molly Stearns, there is no way that she's not trouble. She's like the weeping blonde who appears in the detective's office in a noir: You know you're not supposed to trust her. But Gosling falls for it. Here's that scene:
So, we spent the rest of the movie waiting to find out exactly why she's trouble. And when that does happen, it's amazing how boring of a character she becomes. The screenplay gives Wood lots of tart, sexy dialogue early on, but once she's a plot liability, she turns into the weakest, whiniest character in the film.
3. Give us more Gosling/Hoffman scenes. One of our favorite dynamics in the movie is between Gosling's up-and-comer and Hoffman's grouchy old pro. We would have loved to have seen it develop more, and it's not just because we like the two actors. It's because we really need a sense of their working relationship so that we can be prepared for what happens between them. Presumably, it's supposed to be really heartbreaking when Gosling learns that Hoffman leaked the story about his covert meeting with Giamatti -- it's supposed to be a terrible betrayal. But we never get to know how these two feel about each other. Is Gosling tired of being treated like Hoffman's right-hand man? Is Hoffman jealous of Gosling's rising star? We don't know, so there's nothing underneath Hoffman's decision. When they say goodbye to one another at Wood's funeral, it should be fraught with emotional underpinnings, but instead it's just a scene of two superb actors hanging out.
4. Make the characters smarter. Maybe it's because we watch too many David Mamet movies, but we couldn't help but think of "The Ides of March" as one of his elaborate puzzle movies -- you know, the ones where a smart guy walks into an ingenious con and ends up looking the fool. That's essentially the set-up for your film, but the important difference is that the Gosling character keeps acting rather dumb in key moments. We already mentioned his stunning inability to figure out that Wood is going to be an issue -- she's like the walking embodiment of the recent "Saturday Night Live" sketch "Red Flag" -- but that's just one of several boneheaded mistakes he makes. Seriously, he doesn't think that it's a bad idea to meet the campaign manager of the rival candidate in a public place? And why does it take him forever to figure out that it had to have been Hoffman who leaked the story to the press? These are treated as major plot surprises, but anybody watching the movie is way ahead of your characters. (And it's just not Gosling: We're still not sure why your candidate character takes Gosling's word about a suicide note when it's clear Gosling is absolutely desperate.) In a Mamet film, the characters are smart, which raises the stakes when they trick one another. In your movie, everybody conveniently doesn't think things through, which helps keep the story going.
5. So what? On a basic level, we're not quite sure what "The Ides of March" is supposed to be about. Yes, it's about how elections are won and what the world of politics is like, but there's this overriding sense that you think you're surprising us with something we don't already know. We wouldn't have to even follow the news to know this stuff: "The West Wing" and even "The American President" touched on a lot of this terrain before. So while scenes with a lot of witty, rapid-fire dialogue are always fun ... well, we've all seen it before:
Thanks for a moment of your time, Mr. Clooney. You're welcome.