Politics is a stinky business that George Clooney is happy to leave to others -- except in the cinema.
The 50-year-old star opened the Venice Film Festival yesterday with a political thriller he directed. “The Ides of March” is about a young campaign spokesman who loses faith in the candidate he’s paid to back: a certain Governor Mike Morris, played by Clooney himself.
At a mobbed Venice news conference, the actor-director -- in a steel-gray summer suit, with teeth bright enough for a toothpaste ad -- batted away questions about his own presidential ambitions.
“There’s a guy in office right now who’s smarter than almost anybody you know, nicer, and who has more values than almost anybody you know,” he said of U.S. President Barack Obama. “And he’s having an almost impossible time governing. Why would anybody volunteer for that job?”
“I’m perfectly comfortable not having to be the guy that, if I make a mistake, it costs a couple hundred thousand people their lives,” he said.
While the movie is not meant to be about anyone in particular, echoes of real life run through it. Beau Willimon, the writer of the play it’s based on (“Farragut North”), served on Howard Dean’s 2003-2004 campaign. Clooney’s character is a Democratic governor who employs female interns.
Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov were busy adapting the play in 2008 when life overtook art: The euphoria that followed Obama’s election made it the wrong time to show the flip side of presidential politics. The project was revived a year later, as the Washington mood music changed and the mudslinging resumed.
On screen, Clooney is, for once, not the main attraction. He’s the backdrop to a political coming-of-age tale that gets off to a somewhat predictable start, with many of the better lines sampled in the trailer.
Preppy-looking Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) will do anything to help Governor Morris win the Ohio primary and clinch the Democratic nomination. Even when he’s busy between the sheets, he keeps an eye on the plasma screen. He lets rumors seep out about the adversary’s dodgy diamond investments, knowing they could be utterly baseless.
His blind faith is an excuse for some lazy dialogue. “You really have drunk the Kool-Aid,” says a scoop-seeking New York Times reporter played by Marisa Tomei. “I have drunk it, and it’s delicious,” comes the lame reply.
When young Stephen is courted by the other side, the plot begins to feel about as crafty as a cartoon strip. Then comes a below-the-belt twist in the tale that makes Stephen’s fate far more gripping than Morris’s electoral fortunes.
Face of Politics
Gosling is excellent in the title role. The transition from idealism to sour grapes can practically be graphed on his face. He makes it all look real.
Clooney dexterously directs the rest of the cast, too: from the seasoned Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Morris’s paunchy campaign manager; to his insidious opposite number, played by Paul Giamatti; to the young Evan Rachel Wood, who delivers a memorable performance as the not-so-dumb blond intern.
“The Ides of March” (a reference to the day Julius Caesar is assassinated in William Shakespeare’s play) falls well short of Clooney’s 2005 “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a much subtler directorial effort shot in black and white. This time, the bursts of weak dialogue are coupled with some gauche set designs -- including a wobbly private plane interior that looks very obviously simulated.
In the end, though, the actors and the storytelling save the day, allowing Clooney to keep at the career he loves, and steer well clear of politics.
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(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)