There is much to admire but a lot to admonish in “Run This Town,” writer-director Ricky Tollman’s aggressively cluttered drama about ambitious millennials, circulation-famished editors, and other not-so-innocent bystanders who cross paths in Toronto during the scandal-rocked 2010-14 mayorship of Rob Ford.
It doesn’t help much that Tollman takes far too long during the rapid-fire crisscrossing of storylines throughout his movie’s first third before making it clear which individuals should be paid primary attention. And it doesn’t help at all that Mayor Ford — who looms large, literally and physically, despite his status as a supporting character — is played by a heavily latexed Damian Lewis in a less-than-convincing fat suit. Lewis so closely resembles Mike Myers’ Fat Bastard character in the “Austin Powers” franchise that it’s practically impossible to fully appreciate his spot-on portrayal of a man with an unstable id checked only sporadically by an image-conscious superego (Donald Trump, anyone?).
At the center of the untidy narrative — a liberally fictionalized version of real-life events — two young men played by very fine actors gradually emerge as morally compromised but irresistibly fascinating co-protagonists.
Kamal (Mena Massoud, soon to be seen in the title role in Disney’s live-action “Aladdin”) is an immigrant’s son who has worked his way up to a position of great responsibility, if not consistent influence, in the Ford administration. His formal job title is special assistant, but he’s better described as a human shield: It’s up to him to keep stories of Ford’s very bad behavior — sexual harassment, substance abuse, black-out-drunk episodes, etc. — from ever reaching voters and tainting the mayor’s image as a down-to-earth populist.
Don’t misunderstand: Kamal isn’t exactly Ford’s soul mate; he is suitably repelled by the mayor’s improper activities, especially when his boss crudely comes on to Ashley (Nina Dobrev), an attractive co-worker who takes Kamal’s silence as an act of personal betrayal. But Kamal swallows his outrage because he thinks Ford is, on balance, doing good things for Toronto. And he knows that being associated with such a popular figure is good for his career.
Bram (Ben Platt) is the sort of entitled white male who adamantly refuses to see himself as such (for a while, at least) and has only mixed success when he does try to exploit the breaks he’s been afforded. He trades on connections to land an entry-level job at the Record, a Toronto newspaper where he hopes to make a name for himself as an investigative reporter. The bad news: Bram spends his first several months on staff writing nothing but clickbait listicles, like where to buy the best burgers in the city. The good news: Because he is such a lowly paid but highly productive drone, he’s not among the veteran writers and editors laid off during the paper’s repeated rounds of belt-tightening.
The professional lives of Kamal and Bram become inextricably entwined when Bram takes a phone call intended for a recently fired reporter, and learns that somebody somewhere in Toronto may have filmed Mayor Ford smoking crack (one of several actual events Tollman didn’t have to make up). It’s the sort of bombshell that even Kamal may be unable defuse. And while Bram’s editors — played with just the right measures of cynicism and condescension by Scott Speedman and Jennifer Ehle — are initially skeptical, they ultimately provide their drone with the sizable sum demanded by the person or persons in possession of the incriminating video.
As Bram departs to close the deal, Ehle’s character delivers the funniest and pithiest line in the entire movie: “Go buy us some clicks!”
All of which may make “Run This Town” sound a good deal more coherent than it actually is. Assorted other characters with their own agendas (including some cops eager to build a case against Ford) also figure into the mix, along with scenes of Kamal and Bram interacting with family members who aren’t always supportive. Tollman keeps the narrative barreling along at a brisk clip, occasionally goosing things forward with acres of split-screen images reminiscent of “The Thomas Crown Affair” and rat-tat-tat dialogue exchanges that suggest an Aaron Sorkin wannabe. It’s not always easy keeping up with this film, and there are more than a few times when it really doesn’t seem worth the effort.
On the plus side, however, “Run This Town” offers some sharp observations about the struggle to provide anything like watchdog journalism in an age of diminished budgets and readership. Through the characters of Bram and (especially) Kamal, Tollman illustrates the various ways millennials — and, yes, their elders — are tempted to talk themselves into cutting corners, avoiding introspection and doing dodgy things while pursuing, if not lofty goals, at least continued employment.