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With: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Max Minghella, Jennifer Ehle, Gregory Itzin
Written by: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon, based on a play by Beau Willimon
Directed by: George Clooney
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language
Running Time: 101
Date: 08/31/2011

The Ides of March (2011)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Political Animals

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

George Clooney seems like a good goofball in real life, and when others direct him in goofball roles, he can be quite funny. But on his previous outing as director, Leatherheads (2008), he proved that he himself doesn't quite have the touch for it. With his newest, and fourth film as director, The Ides of March, he shows once again that his best instincts are for dark, subtle humor, hopefully with a bit of satire thrown in for extra sting.

Clooney's debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) was a hilarious fictional biopic that would have been perfectly happy if all the outrageous stuff were true. Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) was even better, a low-key biopic about a dangerous time, told with quiet style, finding space for characters and avoiding anything bombastic. The Ides of March is like a combination of the best parts of those two. Based on the play "Farragut North" by Beau Willimon, it's a tricky political thriller, almost absurd, if it weren't so truthful. Whereas Good Night, and Good Luck allowed viewers to trace connections between the 1950s and the 2000s, The Ides of March is already right here and now.

Clooney once again takes a supporting role, though as the most powerful guy in the room, sitting Governor Mike Morris, who is the democrats' current top candidate for president. The main character here is Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) a junior mastermind behind the campaign. The story takes place in the week leading up to the Ohio primary, a crucial race. Everything depends on which candidate can get an endorsement from Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright). Morris' campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is sure he can get that.

The other candidate, Pullman, isn't onscreen other than a presence in posters and TV ads, but his campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) is definitely here. He summons Stephen for a secret meeting, offering him a job on the Pullman campaign. He outlines their strategy: they will call out all the republicans and independents in Ohio to vote for Pullman, because he, unlike Morris, will be easily defeated in the national election. This "fear" vote will easily outweigh the "love" vote.

Meanwhile, Stephen strikes up a "no strings attached" relationship with a pretty intern, Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), and learns a terrible secret about her. Marisa Tomei is also here as a ruthless reporter who gives Stephen a most unwelcome ultimatum. The movie has a good ear for the way that professionals relate to one another, with one-tenth friendship and nine-tenths ruthless business sense.

Clooney, who adapted the screenplay with Grant Heslov and playwright Beau Willimon, skillfully balances the satire with suspense, while keeping a handle on a kind of naturalism; it makes perfect sense that these kinds of shady dealings would occur exactly like this. Nothing seems overly dramatic or too much like a Hollywood thriller (there are no chase scenes). Several of the touchiest subjects are saved for discreet, yet sinister locations. When one character is fired, he's summoned into a waiting black SUV. The door closes, and the camera waits, in a long shot, for the character to emerge once again. When he does, it's absolutely clear what has transpired.

Overall, The Ides of March isn't quite as successful as Good Night, and Good Luck in that the movie occasionally forays into hightened melodrama toward the final third, perhaps a result of its theatrical origins. I can forgive that, but despite strong dialogue and great actors, the characters also tend to suffer in these moments. Likewise, it's easy to get excited about Clooney's Morris, who says exactly all the right things that a political candidate should be saying right now. (The movies make it look so easy.) It's temping to praise Clooney's performance, or the movie itself, for that reason alone.

However, despite these things, it's enough that The Ides of March is smarter and sharper than the average movie; it's aware of current ideas and fears going on outside of Hollywood's sparkly gates. It should be one of the major entertainments of the fall season, and perhaps one that makes people think a little before casting their next vote.

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