Ho-hum insights into the corruption of American politics are treated like staggering revelations in “The Ides of March.” George Clooney’s fourth feature as a director observes the inner workings of a Democratic presidential campaign through the eyes of a hotshot press secretary who isn’t as smart as he thinks he is; something similar could be said of this intriguing but overly portentous drama, which seems far more taken with its own cynicism than most viewers will be. Still, despite general-audience aversion to topical cinema, a top cast led by Ryan Gosling and Clooney could swing adult viewers in the Oct. 7 release’s direction.
The film is adapted from Beau Willimon’s juicy stage piece “Farragut North,” which itself was loosely inspired by Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid. The play made its Off Broadway debut in November 2008, just a week after President Obama’s election heralded a renewal of faith in the electoral process and a resurgence of hope for the future of American leadership.
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Emerging three years later amid widespread disillusionment, bitter partisan squabbles and still-crippling economic woes, “The Ides of March” would seem ideally suited to these embittered times, and it retains enough of Willimon’s crafty plotting and wicked zingers to work as slick bigscreen entertainment. Yet by opening up the structure of Willimon’s taut morality play — whose spare genius lay in its applicability to any campaign, any party — the screenwriters have attempted to make the text feel more specific and contemporary, but instead have inflated it into something implausible, toothless and weirdly dated.
The story opens in the thick of a crucial Ohio primary, with suave Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney) expected to clinch the Democratic nomination ahead of his opponent, Sen. Pullman (Michael Mantell). Reasonably confident of Morris’ victory are his battle-hardened campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and 30-year-old press secretary, Stephen Meyers (Gosling). A smooth operator on the White House fast track, Stephen uses his considerable charm and smarts to spin political reporters like Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), who’s itching for a scoop on a potentially game-changing Morris endorsement by the influential Sen. Thompson (Jeffrey Wright).
But cracks start to appear when Stephen takes a fateful meeting with Pullman’s campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who provides compelling evidence that Morris’ lead isn’t as insurmountable as it appears, then attempts to win Stephen over to the rival team. Later, Stephen’s dalliance with Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), a pretty 19-year-old intern on the Morris campaign, adds layers of complication to this tale of dirty dealings, personal indiscretions and the lengths to which politicians and their underlings will go in their thirst for power.
Working with Willimon and “Good Night, and Good Luck” writing-producing partner Grant Heslov, Clooney has seized every opportunity to pepper the material with political in-jokes and references designed to make presumably left-leaning viewers chuckle and groan in self-recognition; the right wing, for its part, is clearly not one of the targeted quadrants here. Yet as it sneers at the inherent venality of politics and despairs over the gulf between stump-speech promises and meaningful political change, “The Ides of March” wallows in its own superiority to the point where its cynical pose looks almost naive.
Lensed in alternately dark and chilly tones by d.p. Phedon Papamichael and accompanied by Alexandre Desplat’s brooding, busy score, the film has a polished sheen that conveys prestige and good taste yet never really approximates the lived-in chaos of the campaign trail. In one typical touch, a shot of Stephen silhouetted against a giant American flag is held a few beats too long, so that its irony registers less than its lack of subtlety. The protracted final sequence, intended to chill the viewer into sober reflection, merely induces a shrug.
In elevating the character of Gov. Morris from a peripheral presence onstage to a major player onscreen, the director never seems to be pumping up his own vanity. One of the film’s more pleasing bold strokes is the way Clooney, well aware of his stature as Hollywood’s resident statesman, turns himself into an eloquent mouthpiece for Democratic values, weighing in on everything from gay marriage to America’s oil dependency — only to undercut those ideals with a dispiriting glimpse of all the behind-the-scenes machinations, in a back-and-forth montage shrewdly assembled by editor Stephen Mirrione.
Elsewhere, the terrific cast isn’t always seen to its best advantage. As the ambitious, cocksure Stephen, Gosling certainly looks the part, but the crux of his character — a manipulator out-manipulated by more seasoned pros — never fully comes into focus. Hoffman and Giamatti, delivering two of Willimon’s sharpest monologues, are so well cast as world-weary campaign veterans that they warranted more scenes together. Most under-served of all is Wood, who delivers a sympathetic, emotionally immediate performance yet is stuck with a ludicrous subplot that represents the film’s most ill-advised departure from the original text.