Our Brand Is Crisis’ turns a political documentary into Hollywood mush

Best of enemies: Thornton and Bullock as political rivals in Our Brand Is Crisis.

Two and a half stars

Our Brand is Crisis Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie. Directed by David Gordon Green. Rated R. Opens Friday.

It’s not often that a hard-hitting documentary gets adapted into a wacky star vehicle, but that’s precisely the case with Our Brand Is Crisis, which even retains the documentary’s unusual title. Released 10 years ago, the original film, directed by Rachel Boynton, chronicled the efforts of American campaign strategists, headed by James Carville (who famously ran Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign), to elect Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada as president of Bolivia in 2002. To most people, those events didn’t exactly scream “Sandra Bullock comedy,” but director David Gordon Green—whose résumé includes both art movies like George Washington and such lowbrow yuk-fests as The Sitter and Your Highness—apparently saw that as a challenge. The result, though energetic and intermittently amusing, is about as disjointed as you’d expect.

Oddly, the new movie turns its Carville figure—a slick American operative named Pat Candy, played by a bald Billy Bob Thornton—into the antagonist. Bullock’s character, “Calamity” Jane Bodine, is wholly fictional, and screenwriter Peter Straughan (Frank) creates a long-standing rivalry between the two, in an effort to add a personal angle. Jane has retired to a secluded cabin in the woods when the story begins, but gets tracked down there by a couple of desperate campaigners (Ann Dowd and Anthony Mackie), who persuade her to help them market widely hated former (fictional) Bolivian president Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), who’s giving it another shot and is currently running a distant fifth in the polls. The film’s title refers to her offbeat strategy, which involves convincing the electorate that Bolivia is on the brink of a major crisis that only a volatile, quasi-dictatorial candidate like Castillo can possibly avert.

Functionally directed by Green (who seems to be trying to remain anonymous), Our Brand Is Crisis suffers from a laborious first act that spends way too much time trying to score laughs from Jane’s has-been status before finally letting her snap into barracuda mode. Once she does, Bullock and Thornton have a reasonably good time with their barbed rivalry, and Straughan finds ways to re-engineer some of the documentary’s more fascinating behind-the-scenes details. When it comes time to pretend this Hollywood production actually cares about the Bolivian people, however, Jane’s abrupt change of heart feels more cynically poll-tested than anything in the narrative proper. The only thing less believable than the ending is the fact that this movie exists in the first place.

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