Though I had seen no previews or read anything about the film, last night I watched The Ides of March based on the suggestion of a friend. I was told it was somehow about presidential elections or something and, after seeing it, the "or something" is the description which best fits.
Time: Democratic Primaries in March (the ides of March, get it?)
George Clooney as Gov. Morris, the top contender for the ticket, a man with a vision he actually believes in and refuses to compromise on. "I said I wouldn't make compromises like that and I mean it!"
Ryan Gosling as Stephen Meyers, Morris' press secretary, who despite being experienced with the campaign world ("I've been involved with more campaigns than people who are 40!") has swallowed Morris' Kool-Aid and isn't sure if Morris will win, but knows he has to win.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Paul Zara, campaign manager, a man who smokes a lot and makes seemingly deep proclamation about life and politics.
Paul Giamatti as the campaign manager for "the other guy", who also makes deep proclamations - must be part of the job.
Marisa Tomei as Ida Horowitz, a sassy, cynical reporter for the Times (I assume New York?) who will do anything in order to get the big scoop. You know she is a seasoned reporter because of her large, dark-framed glasses and messy hair. Not a clichéd character at all!
Oops! Almost forgot Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Molly, an intern working Morris' campaign, who, much like her Showgirls namesake, gets fucked, literally and figuratively.
Let us begin at the beginning, where thirty minutes into the movie I had to ask myself, "What is the plot of this damn thing?" Up to that point the movie revolved around snappy "in-the-know" one-liners about Washington politics (I was almost convinced that K Street is the only street in DC) and a campaign wish-list spouted by Clooney, um, Gov. Morris: abolish the death penalty; mandatory youth service, which then pays for college; pro-choice; elimination of the internal combustion engine in ten years (yes, this was actually said!); no reliance on foreign oil; and pulling ours heads out the (Saudi Arabian) sand. What reality does this movie exist in? I have no idea, but it is not K Street. Nevertheless, I felt the movie was going the of that other Hollywood masturbation great, Lions for Lambs, which was, of course, a lecture by Robert Redford. A thin plot eventually unfolds: Meyers sleeps with Molly, finds out she is pregnant from a one-night stand with the illustrious governor; she gets an abortion; she kills herself. In the meantime, Meyers meets with the enemy (Giamatti) and is subsequently fired by Zara for this betrayal. Meyers then has to maneuver himself back into the campaign.
However, it is not the tissue-paper plot that bothers me; I love Showgirls. I can also handle underdeveloped characters and poorly written dialogue, but when these three elements are combined in a movie that wants - demands - to be taken seriously, than I am lost. Molly is introduced as a strong, determined young woman, but quickly becomes a victim, a pawn, who commits suicide rather than even the possibility of a scandal; where did that come from? What about her character would the audience believe such a jump? How can Meyers be so experienced yet so naive? Gosling's character is cold, lifeless, alien, which works in the slightly fantastical world of Drive, but here encourages no empathy. Why, then, should we care whether or not he is fired from the campaign? He does not try to do right by Molly, to honor her memory or her life in any way, but rather uses her pregnancy and subsequent suicide as a tool to get his job back. Gov. Morris is just another politician, tanned, smiling and lying through his teeth. Why is he even there? The characters and their stories are such that they can only exist in that small world of the movie - there or nowhere - and no one can come in. The audience is held at arm's length and we do not care about these people.
In the end, Meyers becomes campaign manager and sees Morris win the Democratic ticket (presumably he also wins the presidential election in the off-camera future), but at what cost? Meyers began the film as both an idealist (he originally refuses to play dirty) and a believer in the idealism of Morris, a man who sticks to his word and refuses to bow to pressure. By the end, Morris has betrayed himself by sleeping with and impregnating an intern and making compromises with a xenophobic senator just so he can win. Meyers, in turn, disillusioned and newly hardened to the reality of politics, encourages Morris to forgo those idealistic pursuits Meyers once loved and focus on winning, at any cost. The message I take away is that power corrupts, but politics will kill you if you try to change the game. Is that supposed to encourage me to get out and vote?
Anthony Lane's review in The New Yorker pins Morris as the Caesar figure (The ides of March, get it? Get it?), but I think he is best cast as Brutus, offering the most painful blow to Meyers in the form of personal weakness and cynical maneuvering - though I hesitate to read too much into the film. In truth, though, everyone has their Caesar moment: Zara, Molly, Morris, even dear Ida expresses a feeling of betrayal. If there is one thing this movie does well, it is shoving symbolic messages down your throat. At the end of the camera focuses on the director's chair - excuse, campaign manager's chair, because, you know, he controls the whole show. Meyers is Caesar. Hail Caesar! (The ides Mar . . . oh, forget it.)
Screw the ten dollars for a movie ticket. Want to see politics in action? Turn on CNN.