Listen to your soothsayer

Michael Phillips | Boulder Weekly

Bad things happened to Julius Caesar on March 15, proof that you should always listen to your soothsayer.

But there’s more than one way to kill a politician’s soul, as The Ides of March proves, for a while very entertainingly.

The victory in George Clooney’s new film has nothing to do with idealism over cynicism or Republicans over Democrats or the reverse. Rather, the movie taken from Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North is one for the actors, plain and simple.

Sometimes the script cooperates; in the latter stages, too often it obstructs. But I would see The Ides of March again just for the way Jeffrey Wright takes command of the screen in the secondary role of a senator who is either a cipher, a sphinx, a two-faced sphinx, a lying sack of D.C. dung or a steely man of principle.

With one exception, the casting of The Ides of March is so apt, the actors simply have to show up for their first scenes to get a collective grin out of the audience. Ryan Gosling stars as the savvy spokesman for a fervent, eco-friendly Democratic governor (played by Clooney) seeking his party’s nomination for president. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the campaign’s manager, a tired-seeming veteran, outmatched by his wily counterpart (Paul Giamatti, so right) working for a more conservative, Bible-thumping candidate. Whoever secures the backing and the votes of the senator played by Wright has a lock on the nomination.

That’s one hook. Another is a campaign staff intern played by Evan Rachel Wood, who falls into bed with Gosling’s character, thus sending him places where his idealism doesn’t come in very handy. The differences between the original play and the screenplay are considerable. Clooney’s character didn’t appear onstage in Farragut North; the film goes in more melodramatic and heavy-handed directions than Willimon (who worked for Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004) originally envisioned.

Some of this works; some of it doesn’t. The invented twists and revelations tend to tax the abilities of Gosling, who is on screen almost constantly. What with Crazy, Stupid, Love and Drive this year, Gosling is everywhere, and I suppose he’s growing on me. On the other hand, I think his luck is outstripping his skill set. There’s a moment in Ides when his allegedly squeaky-clean staffer receives some shocking news, changing everything. And Gosling overplays it. Badly. Almost comically. And the performance never fully recovers.

It’s a treat, though — a movie-saver, in fact — to watch Clooney dine out on a role with some unexpected side dishes, just as it’s a pleasure to soak up the atmospheric pleasures of The Ides of March. The political skulduggery unfolds in neat little exchanges, and the mood recalls various ’70s paranoia thrillers.

The score by Alexandre Desplat suggests trouble, visible or invisible, underneath every new conversation. The characters stick more to archetypes than to dimensional creations, but there’s plenty of juice to be had with archetypes if they’re played by Hoffman, Giamatti or — as a New York Times reporter with more axes to grind than she has sources to schmooze — Marisa Tomei.

Does the movie have a lot to say about our political process? Nothing we haven’t heard. But director Clooney respects the pacing and the rhythms of another movie-making era. The material may be shallow but it’s not shrill. I only hope Wright gets to play a bigger, more expansive riddler next time.

—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond: