So here’s the thing. Movie protagonists don’t necessarily have to be likable. But they do have to comprehensible. We have to understand what the central character of a story wants. Does she want to rule the world? Does she want to blow up the world? Fine. Just give us a story that takes us along on that journey.
But this Our Brand Is Crisis movie… I never got it. I never understood what is supposed to be motivating political strategist “Calamity” Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock: Minions, Gravity) to come out of self-imposed early retirement — she was running away from the professional disasters that earned her that nickname — to work with an underdog presidential candidate in Bolivia. Is it mere revenge against a longtime rival? At first it seems like that might be the thing: her nemesis Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton: Entourage, The Judge) is working for the Bolivian opposition. (This fictional film is based on the 2005 documentary of the same name, and Candy is clearly a cinematic incarnation of famous — some would say infamous — Bill Clinton strategist James Carville.) But she seems to revel in the sheer cynicism of the job. It matters not to her that her boss the candidate (Joaquim de Almeida: Fast Five) is kind of an asshole who doesn’t seem to have the nation’s best interests at heart; she is pure “win at all costs,” all Tao of War. And if that’s all she wants… again, fine. It might be a bit of a problem that there’s nothing actually satirical in a movie that aims to be a political satire — this is all very much in the realm of Shit That Actually Happens — but it might be a minor problem. But there is meant to be something special about Jane: at one point, Candy says to her, “You like to pretend you’re not one of us,” meaning all the other disenchanted manipulative hacks like him. But we never see that. She looks, walks, and quacks entirely like him.
This gets to be an extra problem when the film ends up at an earnest, sentimental redemption for Jane that is tonally at odds with the rest of the film, an ending that the film has not earned in any way at all. At some point along the way on Jane’s journey, she was apparently meant to have a change of heart and has become a Better Person, but we are never made privy to the details of this in any form. It’s not even hinted at. We are meant to be moved, and we are not. Because it comes at us outta nowhere.
I am extra disappointed for Bullock here, because as is all too often the case, we have a movie that doesn’t seem to know what to do with her. (Hollywood never seems to know what to do with women who are funny.) Odds bits of physical comedy — which she is brilliant at — don’t work alongside the disillusioned political stuff. They could, but here they are fighting against each other: the stuff that is meant to be funny undercuts the authority she is meant to have. I long for a movie that gives Bullock the space she needs to be as comedically amazing as she can be, in a story that does her talents justice, and that doesn’t end up putting her down in the long run.