Stephen Gyllenhaal’s highly improbable laffer about a Seattle city council election in which a single-issue candidate with no experience, no job and no supporters unexpectedly becomes a grassroots phenomenon paradoxically hews closely to real-life events. In a less fiercely contested election year, the pic might strike a chord with campaign-weary auds on its July 13 limited release. But with issues too tangential to resonate fully during the actual ongoing national debate, “Grassroots” instead registers like a quaint display of local color.
Having lost his job on a third-string alternative newspaper, reporter Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs), whose real-life counterpart wrote the book upon which the film is based, succumbs to his sense of absurdity and agrees to manage the campaign of his dingbat friend, Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore), for city council against incumbent black councilman Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer). An unemployed music critic, Cogswell is wont to parade through the streets in a polar bear suit. He also gesticulates wildly, bangs on car roofs with his shoe, and harangues passersby about his “monomania” — i.e. extending the Seattle monorail, a two-mile stretch of which was built to serve the 1962 World’s Fair.
After his explosive temper and uncensored language succeeds in alienating every conceivable voting block — including a group dedicated to advancing the monorail — Cogwell’s impassioned rhetoric suddenly stays focused long enough to trigger a positive response, particularly among a group of students, who are willing to volunteer.
With enthusiasm matched only by their naivete, the callow volunteers (commandeered by Phil) plaster the town with posters, t-shirts and signs for their candidate. But the campaign’s resurgence comes at a price. After Phil turns down a prestigious reporting job, his live-in girlfriend Emily (Lauren Ambrose) moves out, morally disturbed by Phil’s support of a clueless candidate running against the city’s only black elected official, and fed up with their marginal lifestyle being further invaded by sleepover campaigners.
“American Pie” alum Biggs proves surprisingly effective as an intelligent reporter swept up in the tide of populist politics, while Moore brilliantly handles his character’s intermittent process of maturation from infantile, ranting incoherence to ringing articulation, with just enough backsliding and hyperbolic schmaltz to keep things interesting. But it’s Cedric, as the incumbent councilman, who truly impresses with his mix of absolute candor and glad-handing political expediency.
Gyllenhaal captures election-night frenzy with panache, throwing in a crazed punk rocker to up the ante. An eclectic sampling of Seattle bands gives an edge to the featured metropolitan landmarks on Cogswell’s loving perambulations around the city.