The Review: Somewhere along the line, George Clooney became an American institution, but I’m still struggling to pinpoint the exact moment that it happened. It must have been after he was in ER (the second one; he was actually in two different series called ER, fact fans, one of which was a comedy), and definitely after he was in that Batman film. Admittedly he probably got into that because everyone was convinced he was a movie star; somewhere between Out Of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven it actually came true, but actually his screen career’s been patchy at best. His directorial efforts haven’t really been any different, and from the highs of Good Night, And Good Luck to The Leatherheads sinking without trace, a Clooney film is far from a sure thing. So it’s a great relief to report that The Ides Of March is actually a cracking thriller, but one of a very particular type.
But just as Clooney’s character seems practically perfect in every possible way, much of the success of Ides isn’t just Clooney’s skill in front of and behind the camera, it’s actually his leading man. For Clooney is almost a support player in his own movie, but his leading man seems physically incapable of appearing in a bad film these days, on a hot streak this year including Blue Valentine, Drive and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Ryan Gosling is rapidly turning into the George Clooney of his generation, the next matinee idol and on a similar trajectory. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the film follows similar threads, Gosling’s idealistic campaigner working keenly in the shadow of Clooney’s virtuous liberal Senator. When Gosling gets a call from a rival campaigner (Paul Giamatti), curiosity gets the better of him and it sets in motion a chain of events that threaten to not only upturn his life, but also that of the fresh-faced intern (Evan Rachel Wood) who’s keen to get in his, erm, briefs.
That last reference would have worked better if Ides were a courtroom or legal thriller, but tonally it actually has a lot in common with some of the better examples of that genre from recent years, such as A Few Good Men or The Firm. (This might also suggest Gosling could be the next Tom Cruise rather than George Clooney, which should certainly be within his reach if he wants it.) It’s also a sign that The Ides Of March isn’t actually as deep as it thinks it is; it’s not quite paddling pool shallow, but the politics itself is an extreme form of liberal idealism that wouldn’t hold water in the real world, and the actual debate never really gets a look in, as it’s all about the Clooney campaign. But Clooney the director makes the greater contribution of the two Clooneys here, with heavy use of close-ups getting heavily into the drama and the pacing kept just right for the material.
It’s not to diminish Clooney the actor’s contribution; whenever he or Gosling is on screen, the effect is magnetic, and when the two are together the screen positively burns with charisma. It’s very much an actor’s movie, and there’s sterling support from the likes of Giamatti, Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei. Those expecting an intricate political dissection of the current state of the Union will be disappointed; an early reference to Neville Chamberlain gives a feel of the more timeless themes of personal integrity and power that Clooney the writer and his partner Grant Heslov are keen to explore. A slightly muted reception in the US might be down to the two party system, and the fact that The Ides Of March wears its Democrat badge with pride (even if it does evoke some of the most well known Democrats of recent years for many of the wrong reasons), but if you’re looking for entertainment then there’s no need to beware this Ides Of March.
Why see it at the cinema: Flirting in tight close up, when the camera is fully in the faces of Ryan Gosling and Evan Rachel Wood, there’s something for everyone.
The Score: 8/10
The Review: If you were making a list of people who could make unsympathetic and unlovable characters still appealing, then Paul Giamatti would surely be near the top of that list. His standout turn in Sideways from a few years back may have helped in that cause; his neurotic and uptight Miles still managed to be captivating. So it’s maybe no surprise that, when looking to put on screen Mordecai Richler’s novel about a man and his many marriages, that the makers turned to Giamatti. Barney Panofsky is a man who distrusts and despises the world around him, and generally goes out of his way to tell friends and colleagues what he thinks of them, in no uncertain terms; yet he’s managed to snare (or be snared by) three wives along the way. Having Paul Giamatti in the role makes that prospect instantly more believable.
The three wives in question, who we meet over the course of the film’s extended narrative, are Rachelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike. Barney is drawn to each one for different reasons, and in that the narrative almost becomes a compare and contrast process, as we see the different reasons that people make a life commitment and their effect on Barney each time. Lefevre has the slightest of the three roles in the production, and Pike the meatiest, but each has a sizeable impact on Barney’s character and help to paint the picture of how he becomes the man he is at the end. Pike’s is undoubtedly the strongest performance of the three, although the movie has to work hard in each case to make the set-ups believable, mainly thanks to Barney’s personality.
Apart from Barney and his wives, the supporting cast is packed with familiar names and faces, Dustin Hoffman being the most prominent. When the narrative isn’t entirely focussed on the three wives’ tales, there’s a preoccupation with family and the legacy that others have had on Barney and in turn his effect on them. The film is at least enjoyable for all of these parts of its running time, but generally the scenes involving a wife are the most compelling. There’s a real depth of feeling and there are strong themes of behaviour, love and loyalty, each running through each tale and inviting the viewer to compare and contrast, but taken on their own these strands are as good a romantic comedy drama as you’ll have seen in many a year.
Which is why it’s all the more disappointing that, at regular intervals, one of the smaller subplots actually ends up overshadowing the whole film. The structure of the book plays on the unreliable narrator idea, but the film has a more conventionally flashback structure and so a potential murder mystery is used to cause Barney to review his life from the point of view his older self. But the whole whodunnit is so completely at odds both tonally and structurally with everything else and so unbelievable in its execution that it unbalances everything, and the fact that the resolution feels like it’s been casually lifted from the opening of a Paul Thomas Anderson film means the whole strand is distracting from beginning to end. A shame, as the rest of the film is so likeable and Giamatti deserves to be centre stage in a hit, but sadly this will only be remembered as a partial success.
Why see it at the cinema: For me, Rosamund Pike almost naked on a bed justified the price of admission, but I’m sadly turning into my own version of a dirty old man with the passing of time. Enough of that. For regular audiences, Giamatti is great, and if you can overlook the murder subplot there’s enough laughs and tears here to thoroughly enjoy the collective experience.
The Score: 7/10