During Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential bid, political strategist James Carville narrowed the campaign's message to one simple, effective sentence: "It's the economy, stupid." That statement—and its intentionally reductive phrasing—has become something of a meme in American politics. It's the _______, stupid has been used to pinpoint the single most important issue in any campaign, the one soft spot where damage can be done, where points can be scored, where a seemingly unstoppable opponent is glaringly vulnerable.
For movies, I would like to propose a version of that phrase that is almost always appropriate, and never more so than for George Clooney's competent but underwhelming new film, The Ides of March:
"It's the writing, stupid."
Which is to say that there's nothing wrong with The Ides of March but its screenplay—and, unfortunately, the screenplay is everything. Written by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Williamson, based on Williamson's stage play Farragut North, The Ides of March takes place during the Democratic primaries, as Clooney's Governor Mike Morris is locked in battle with his opponent, Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell), for what looks like the decisive contest in Ohio. Steven (Ryan Gosling) is the young media hotshot on Morris's campaign, a protegé of the grizzled-but-decent campaign manager Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
When Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti)—Zara's opposite number on Pullman's campaign—reaches out with a job offer to Gosling's character, it sets in motion a chain reaction of ethical compromises and revelations that are supposed to feel—in case you missed the subtlety in the title—like a tragedy. Unfortunately, what it feels like instead is every political movie we've ever seen.
The problem is that we've become used to seeing smarter and wittier views of political campaigns, from Tanner '88 to The War Room to The West Wing to Primary Colors. (Even Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—from 1939—has a far more sophisticated understanding of both political machinations and human frailty than this overly simple parable.) I won't give away the plot, but if you've seen any of these movies or shows, you're not going to get anything new from The Ides of March. The film delivers every possible cliché we've come to expect from a movie about politics—the idealistic-but-hungry young staffer (Gosling); the idealized-but-flawed candidate (Clooney); the cynical-but-loyal campaign manager (Hoffman); the funny-but-cutthroat reporter (Marisa Tomei); the innocent-and-exploited young intern (Evan Rachel Wood); the scandal, the betrayals, the inevitable disappointment and disillusionment. Far from an insider's view, Ides feels like a film about politics written by someone whose only point of reference is earlier films about politics.
A larger crime is that this screenplay has nothing to say about the current political landscape: the timeless and toothless observations Ides makes will be familiar to all but the most naive high school civics class. (Oh, really, politics is more about winning than it is about ideals? Say it ain't so, George.) Here, the political players seem naive, and so do the ideals: nothing about the film feels authentic. (At one point Giamatti's character says that Steven is the best media mind in the country—and yet Steven makes a series of rookie errors that even the most apolitical laypeople in the audience will spot a mile away.) The plot turns are both obvious and melodramatic, and fatally hinge on missed phone calls and characters behaving stupidly.
And it's a shame, because nearly everyone involved is excellent. Clooney's direction is confident if unremarkable, and the cold and gray exhaustion of the campaign trail is nicely rendered by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. Clooney's performance is little more than an expanded cameo, but his Mike Morris is believably charismatic when he's in front of the cameras, and believably haggard from campaigning when he's behind the scenes. Seeing Hoffman and Giamatti face off is a thrilling clash of middleweight champs, and neither hits a false note as the only two grown ups in either campaign. (Oh, for a better-written picture that really let these two perfectly-matched actors shine opposite one another.) Tomei is predictably fun as the likable but treacherous reporter, using her endearing charm openly to get what she wants and never forgetting that she's a professional. Only Gosling's performance fails to impress, and he was probably miscast as the media-savvy wunderkind: he's a smart actor who plays dumb better than he plays smart.
But, as I said, most of the fault lies in the writing. We are told rather than shown that Gosling's character is a genius, that Clooney's character is a liberal hero, and never do we have a single scene that makes us care about either. (I think, for example, of the donut shop scene in Primary Colors, in which John Travolta's Clintonesque politician bonds with a minimum wage worker, demonstrating that—for all his other faults—this is a man who really does like and care about people.) Clooney never gets a scene here that makes us share Gosling's faith in him, and thus never seems like anything more than an empty shirt. Gosling's character fares little better, espousing highfalutin ideals in the first half of the movie and being ridiculously quick to betray them when he suffers a few setbacks. That both men are so shallowly righteous is perhaps the point, but it's an obvious and shopworn point that's beneath everyone involved to make.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—or, at the very least, the Golden Raspberry Award Foundation—should create a category called Most Egregious Squandering of a Great Cast on a Mediocre Screenplay. This year, the front-runners to take home the trophy have to be Contagion and The Ides of March. Both films are earnest, both are well-directed and executed, and both feature lauded and laureled ensembles that any director would kill for. Like the earlier film, however, The Ides of March turns out to be so much smaller than the sum of its parts, and doesn't come close to justifying the talent that has been assembled to bring its trite and trivial screenplay to life.
The problem? It's the writing, stupid. And it's the stupid writing.