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Beware The Ides of March (Columbia Pictures). This slick political thriller, the fourth directorial effort of the velvet-voiced heartthrob and aspiring auteur George Clooney, adds up to less than it appears to be at first glance, or even the first several glances. For a good 45 minutes, Clooney strings the audience along, making us half-believe that we’re watching a taut fable in the great '70s tradition of political paranoia: The Parallax View, All the President’s Men. In fact, The Ides of March doesn’t do a bad job of mocking up the tone and texture of such a movie, with its grubby, ill-lit interiors and tensely furtive exchanges. But despite across-the-board bravura performances (especially by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti as dueling campaign managers), The Ides of March somehow remains static and lifeless, like a civics-class diorama.
The little figures in the diorama sure are pretty, though. There’s Ryan Gosling, lissome and doe-eyed, as Stephen Meyers, a political consultant who, at 30, has made it to the position of second-in-command in the presidential campaign of Pennsylvania governor Mike Morris (the arguably even swoonier Clooney, in a surprisingly small supporting role). Morris is about to face off in the Democratic primary against a less charismatic opponent (Michael Mantell, rarely seen in the film) with a ruthless, Karl Rove-ian righthand man, Tom Duffy (Giamatti). Through off-screen machinations whose duplicity we can only guess at, Duffy is on the verge of securing the endorsement of a powerful senator (Jeffrey Wright) who will bring with him enough delegates to ensure that Morris loses the nomination.
When the unscrupulous Duffy tries to poach Stephen for his own team, a wedge is driven between Stephen and his boss Paul Zara (Hoffman), a brilliant campaign manager with a broad paranoid streak. Meanwhile, a toothsome blond intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) is making no secret of her plans to get Stephen into bed.
What unfolds from there is a combination sex scandal and inter-campaign backstab-fest that moves like a good thriller in reverse, steadily losing suspense and credibility with each new plot twist. Nearly every moment that makes the movie worth seeing—Gosling and Wood’s high-octane flirtation, Giamatti and Hoffman’s exchange of tight fuck-you smiles as their candidates take the stage for a debate—happens in the first half. After the climactic faceoff between Gosling and Hoffmann—which, in a curious directorial ellipsis, takes place mostly off-screen—virtually nothing that occurs is believable.
Stephen’s shift from committed idealist to jaded horse-trader might have real emotional power if it had snuck up on him, and us, in tiny increments; instead, the character pivots 180 degrees in a single scene, like Bruce Banner transforming into the Hulk.
The Ides of March has no apparent ambitions to function as an allegory for our current political moment. (For one thing, the Republican Party is virtually absent, even as an off-screen presence; in the impossible fairyland this movie takes place in, whoever wins the Democratic nomination is all but guaranteed the White House.) To be sure, Clooney’s Mike Morris is faintly Obama-esque—a handsome, seductive candidate with a flair for uplifting rhetoric and sporting a Shepard Fairey-style campaign poster. But the film, adapted by Clooney and his writing partner Grant Heslov from a play by Beau Willimon (who also worked on the script), uses these parallels mainly as stage decoration, a backdrop for larger, vaguer, and ultimately overfamiliar truths about human nature: Power corrupts. Good guys finish last. He who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind. Ryan Gosling looks really good with his shirt off.
It’s a shame that Clooney the director is content to limit himself to such shopworn ideas, especially given that Clooney the actor was born for the role of a slippery, potentially malevolent political cipher. The Ides of March isn’t a dumb movie—scene by scene, it has its moments of drama, suspense, and wit, and the actors are all at the top of their game—but it’s nowhere near as smart as it could be, or as its director seems to think it is. In one of the film’s sharpest scenes—an early one, of course—Giamatti’s scheming operative tells the innocent Stephen that he, and by extension the whole Democratic Party, need to shed their lofty ideals and “get down in the mud with the fucking elephants.” This movie could do with a roll in the mud itself.