Our Brand Is Crisis is the story of how a team of professional political consultants from the United States descends on Bolivia during a presidential election campaign to help its client/candidate get elected. It’s adapted from writer-producer Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary of the same name — from almost every point of view a damning indictment of spin doctors, dirty tricks, smear campaigns, character assassination, and other greasy political games. The type of film that would make us want to wash our hands, twice, with Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap after viewing it.
So right away we wonder: What would cause any filmmaker to want to continue this discussion? Also: How is this new narrative treatment going to view such composite characters as “Calamity Jane” Bodine (Sandra Bullock) and Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), veteran campaign marketers working for rival Bolivian candidates? And incidentally: How does Bolivia itself fit into the framework?
Answer to Questions number one and two: Sandra Bullock. Someone, somewhere — Boynton, screenwriter Peter Straughan, director David Gordon Green, producer George Clooney, or most likely exec-producer Bullock herself — decided that the durable leading lady of Speed, The Blind Side, and Gravity might be just the right actress to tease the inner lovable-ness out of self-centered Jane, a manipulative, reclusive, clinically depressed marketing pit bull now ashamed of her role in “legendary” campaigns of the past, in which she helped transform terrible individuals into our nation’s leaders. Bolivia is Jane’s latest challenge. The role requires Bullock to sulk, vomit (the altitude makes her sick), proclaim at high volume, and sneer a lot in the direction of Thornton’s Candy, with Jane evidently rigged as a female version of notorious image fixer James Carville. Candy is working for the progressive candidate; Jane’s job is to rebrand a smooth businessman named Castillo (Joaquin de Almeida), who doesn’t mind palling around with the IMF, as Señor Warmth. He might as well be a box of laundry detergent.
Jane and her team are openly contemptuous of Bolivia and everyone in it, a dubious comic ploy ostensibly set up to make Jane’s last-reel conversion into a caring, feeling person more convincing. Only one gringo staffer speaks Spanish, Jane’s crew hates the local food and drinks, and the cruel laughs at Third World ineptitude keep on coming. Jane and her friends are truly the Ugly Americans. From its trailers, Our Brand Is Crisis (awkward title) looks to be one of those sardonic political comedies like Wag the Dog or Charlie Wilson’s War, but the Boynton-Green-Straughan tale sets new standards for bitter irony. Wag the Peasants is more like it. Are you already sick of the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election? If not, you will be after seeing this.
What more can be said about Bullock at this stage of her career? Her attitude here is one of dismal lassitude in hopes of redemption, as Jane gropes her way to a howlingly false epiphany. We feel bullied into pulling for her. Thornton, on the other hand, does better with worse dialogue. Any victory by either of the consultants will be hollow and tragically ironic, and so we’re relieved when the final credits roll. It’s a case of plain old bad taste. The only clean character in the movie is Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco), Jane’s idealistic Bolivian gofer, a bright kid being jerked around by cynics. When Jane, Candy, and their goons finally depart, Bolivia will belong to him again. So maybe there’s hope after all.