Several different Sandra Bullocks come out to play in this generous showcase for her range: the steely-eyed survivor of 'Gravity', the underrated slapstick clown of 'Miss Congeniality', the action warrior of 'Speed'. 'Our Brand Is Crisis' is a nasty political comedy in the vein of HBO’s 'Veep', and Bullock is Jane Bodine, a burned-out campaign manager drawn out of retirement to skew a Bolivian presidential election. Here she tries on a weary cynicism that plays tartly against Billy Bob Thornton’s horny competing strategist, resulting in a toxic flirtation that you wish the whole film were about.
It’s not: earnestness and crushed idealism dilute the cocktail, perhaps a result of the forward sense of lefty outrage that co-producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov have made a stock in trade in movies like 'Argo'. Based on a much sharper 2005 documentary by Rachel Boynton, 'Our Brand Is Crisis' scores points for preserving the essence of its unworthy real-life candidate, a philandering fat cat and former head of state here called Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), from Bolivia’s actual Gonzalo 'Goni' Sánchez de Lozada. (Castillo is a guy who watches his election results in a bathtub with a flute of champagne.) Languishing in the polls and facing a serious deficiency of character and leadership, Bullock’s Jane issues the order to go negative, commanding all staffers to amp up the national anxiety.
The duelling dirty tricks zing half the time (one winner has Thornton’s slimeball stealing a piece of Jane’s language for his own candidate – it turns out to be a quote from Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels). But subplots involving naive volunteers getting their hearts broken feel like strands from a less ambitious movie. Anyone interested in knowing the victor can find it online, but surely the real Jane (who wasn't even female) didn't wander down the street in a dazed, guilty fug. It feels like a phoney last-act fit of conscience when watching her moon the competition – literally, from a moving vehicle – is so much more fun.