In "Our Brand Is Crisis," Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock plays a campaign consultant named Jane Bodine -- aka Calamity Jane -- who has pulled herself out of the political game after a dirty trick that went tragically wrong. Just when she thinks she's out, she gets pulled back in -- as Michael Corleone might have said -- by a challenge she can't resist: a presidential election in Bolivia.
While Jane is a wholly fictional character, another major player seems a little, shall we say, familiar: Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), who's masterminding the campaign of the Jane's candidate's opponent. He has a shaved head. A cadaverous countenance. A supercilious manner. A killer instinct. And a striking, unmistakable resemblance to political consultant James Carville.
Carville? . "Our Brand Is Crisis" was "suggested" (that's the word they use) by Rachel Boynton's documentary of 2005 -- also titled "Our Brand Is Crisis" -- in which Boynton chronicled the South American adventures of the consulting firm Greenberg Carville Shrum as it rescued the failing 2002 campaign of once and future Bolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.
"Suggested by"? The films even share the same title . . . .
"I fought that," laughed the film's director, David Gordon Green ("Pineapple Express," "Eastbound & Down"). "I don't even know what 'suggested by' means." Obviously, it was inspired by Rachel's film, he said, but if someone was being overly cautious about lawsuits, they hadn't talked to Billy Bob Thornton.
"Yeah, that one was pretty clear," Green admitted, regarding Thornton's Carville impression, replete with bald head. "You know what's amazing, too, is when we were talking on the phone before he showed up on set, he said, 'You know, I have a couple of ideas, but I kinda want to surprise you.' And that's how he showed up. I'm glad I liked that idea. If I hadn't it would have been a [expletive] show."
On one hand, "Our Brand Is Crisis," which opens Friday, is a movie that defines the term "dramedy" -- Bullock's character wrestles with her personal demons, suffers days of comedy nausea thanks to Bolivia's deficient oxygen supply, outwits her enemies, engages in some general wackiness in and around La Paz. Her crew of operatives, and there are several, are played by Zoe Kazan, who resembles the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo without the tattoo, and Anthony Mackie, who said what he liked about the film was its universality.
"What I love about this is, it's not specifically about politics," said the actor, who lives in New Orleans, where much of the film was shot. "Sandy's character could be in any business and she'd be the same person jockeying and lobbying for position. Plus, she gives a phenomenal performance: If you weren't a fan before, you're going to leave a fan of Sandra Bullock."
Boynton was excited that Bullock was in the movie at all.
"I was thrilled when they made the lead role a woman. I think that was a really smart move," said the documentarian, whose last film, "Big Men," concerns oil exploration-exploitation in Africa. She said she hasn't caught up with the new "Crisis" yet, but "I'm excited to see it and I think Sandra Bullock will make a terrific political consultant."
She might be pleased, too, by the political content of Green's version, which has more English subtitling than any big studio release of recent memory. It delves into the realities behind the bailouts of national economies, the financial "shock therapy" imposed on failing countries by the International Monetary Fund and the cruelty imposed by the IMF on the economies it allegedly "saved."
"I hope we've opened the conversation without using too heavy a hand," Green said, "but the more you look at it the more you see it around the world and what effect this kind of globalization has on developing countries." Green, who shot the film largely in Louisiana and Puerto Rico (as well as farther south "to make sure we had a good bit of authentic Bolivian backdrop"), said the "underdog" story told in the screenplay by Peter Straughan ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "Wolf Hall") was something a little different from what he'd expected.
So "Crisis" may not be a film for moviegoers requiring moral tidiness, flowers, puppies and/or butterflies.
"We actually shot versions where it ended neatly, and it didn't feel honest," Green said. "We shot more outrageous comedy, and more earnestness, and more exposition; it was a fun movie to edit because we had a lot more opportunities to experiment. But at the end of the day we started gravitating to where it was, and is, and decided in the end that less is more. And less is more relatable, actually."
NOT THE FIRST OF ITS KIND
In the political comedy "Our Brand Is Crisis," not a great deal is made that professionals from the United States are going to be the ones deciding the fate of Bolivia -- the thrust of the story is more about the malleability of the electorate (any electorate) and the scorched-earth policy of U.S. political advisers. But the idea of America big-footing it around the world has always been a source of dramatic tension and sometimes laughs, as evidenced by the following:
THE UGLY AMERICAN (1963) Lots of people probably use the term without knowing it refers to both a 1958 political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, and the movie that arrived five years later starring Marlon Brando as Harrison MacWhite, the new U.S. ambassador to Sarkan (think Thailand), who views every conflict as a clash between communism and democracy, and can't quite grasp that a desire for self-determination doesn't always mean anti-Americanism. The phrase itself has come to mean loud, obnoxious Yanqui tourists, but Burdick and Lederer had something else in mind.
THE QUIET AMERICAN (2002) Michael Caine got an Oscar nomination for his performance in this first-rate thriller based on Graham Greene's 1955 novel (and first filmed in 1958). Caine is Thomas Fowler, a longtime foreign correspondent based in Southeast Asia who encounters Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a U.S. aid worker who's actually working for the CIA. Fowler and his younger antagonist clash over Pyle's naive political philosophy and their mutual interest in Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), the beautiful Vietnamese woman with whom Fowler lives.
TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (2004) The only match for North Korea's power-mad Kim Jong-il are the marionettes recruited by "South Park" masterminds Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who send up American cowboy diplomacy in a movie that's as rude and ridiculous as it is biting and on point.
CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR (2007) An underappreciated gem from director Mike Nichols and based on George Crile's book of the same name, about congressman Charlie Wilson, CIA agent Gust Avrakotos and their efforts to aid the mujahedeen during the Soviet-Afghan war. The fact that we were in a war in Afghanistan at the time of its release probably didn't help the movie (a big piece of the book was left out), nor did the fact that some of those mujahedeen had morphed into the Taliban. But Tom Hanks is at his comedic best, as is Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rizwan Manji, Julia Roberts and Amy Adams.