The Ides Have It

What Hollywood does well is melodrama. And when it’s at its best, it’s able to make melodrama bump up against real drama, which is what happens in The Ides of March. Somehow, without car chases, gunfights, or explosions, the movie’s makers have been able to ratchet up the suspense and thrills. It might have been called D.C. Confidential for all the movie’s secrets and surprises.

At the center is the character played by Ryan Gosling, Stephen Meyer (most often referred to as “Stevie”), a talented young campaign strategist who’s well-liked even by his enemies, a man who believes that “nothing bad happens when you’re doing the right thing.” That philosophy—and the man himself—will be tested.

The story’s inciting incident—if you want to get all dramaturgical about it—is a conversation. More specifically, it’s a decision regarding that conversation that threatens to send everyone and everything off the rails.

George Clooney, who has come into his own as a director (the kind, like Clint Eastwood, who knows how to make the camera unobtrusive), has surrounded himself with solid secondary characters. Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Wood are especially fine. Giamatti and Hoffman are the old pros of the campaign trail, guys with guts (actual guts) who do what needs to be done, who have pared down their ideals to a bare minimum needed for survival and self-respect. Tomei is strong as the reporter who alternatively befriends and berates her sources. And Wood has some great meet-cute moments as her character gets to know Gosling’s, though from the beginning you think there’s more to her than meets the eye, which is a tribute to her acting chops. Remember that confrontation scene she played as Mickey Rourke’s daughter in The Wrestler, the way it lifted off the screen, took on a life of its own? Great stuff.

Clooney himself does a fine job playing liberal democratic governor Mike Morris, a man who’s smart, sincere, and maybe just a little too impressed with himself for his own good, the kind of guy who can barely keep from smiling and giving a shiver of self-satisfaction over his own wonderfulness.

Gosling carries the movie in the sense that his arc is the one we follow with the most interest. His “Stevie” is young and talented but untried. Gosling, who often plays characters filled with reticence, plays this one with striding self-confidence (even his voice is lower), a man who knows he’s headed for great things. Heck, what could go wrong? Only everything.

Here’s a good example of Ryan Gosling’s talent as an actor. In both Drive and The Ides of March, there’s at least one wordless shot of Gosling in profile while he’s driving. Each shot is remarkably parallel to the other. In Drive the character is afraid he’s about to lose the only thing that has meaning in his life—his budding romance. In Ides his career and his entire philosophy of life hang in the balance. And yet, despite the similar circumstances, Gosling’s intensity hums at a different emotional frequency for each. Other factors might have an effect on these shots: framing, lighting, even makeup, and certainly the impact of the story-so-far exerting pressure on the moment and on the audience. But I think the primary difference is what the actor brought to each moment—the different histories of his characters, the different dangers, the different sense of the future—and all of it conveyed wordlessly. They’re fine distinctions, yes, but great performances are made of small distinctions like this.

The Ides of March, like the best political thrillers, shows the seamy side of politics. I know, I know, I hear you asking, “Is there any other side?” But Clooney and his team do make you feel you’re watching the death of a dream. Ides is not about the politics of Democrats or Republicans. It’s about the politics of people, about what some southern smarty-pants once called “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

P.S. The Sleeper was on the edge of her seat throughout, muttering “Et tu, brute.”

P.P.S. Why is it that the talkers always make a point of sitting behind me? This time, it was a group of four friends, one of whom kept telling the others what she thought would happen next. And what’s the etiquette? A polite throat-clearing? An air horn? A large sock filled with manure? I always figure if I say anything, they’ll make it seem as though I’m the one making a disturbance. I’d welcome your suggestions.

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Lincoln Stinkin’

The Lincoln Lawyer OnesheetOne of my tried-and-true indicators of the quality of a film is whether or not my wife falls asleep while watching it. We often go to movies after her grueling dressage lessons, so she deserves a nap. But she was wide awake throughout The Lincoln Lawyer, later telling me how good it was. I growled, “Oh, you just like Matthew ‘Man Candy’ McConaughey.” Needless to say, I learned a hard lesson that day: don’t come between a woman and her man candy. That’s a lot, Matthew.

The first challenge to the makers of legal thrillers is, well, The Verdict. Where do you go from there? The quiet passion of David Mamet’s screenplay, Sidney Lumet’s taut direction, Paul Newman’s soul-baring, loser-turned-savior performance, the painfully ambiguous performance of Charlotte Rampling, the deliciously evil James Mason, and the spot-on performance by every actor in the cast. It doesn’t get any better than The Verdict. Every other legal thriller since then stands in its shadow.

And here we have The Lincoln Lawyer, based on Michael Connelly’s best-selling novel. There’s a clever conceit at the center of this gripping novel: he’s the “Lincoln Lawyer” because his Lincoln Town Car is his rolling office, the place where he does all his business. And while the moviemakers retain key scenes in the car, their Mick Haller also has an office and a receptionist. In other words, they water down one of the key elements that distinguish the novel from every other legal thriller.

The second challenge is that shows about lawyers are the mainstay of broadcast (or as I call it, boredcast) television. Movies about lawyers can’t settle comfortably into the old formulae and clichés of the genre. That field’s been picked-over. And yet this one goes at it as if neither of these challenges existed, the only distinction being the director’s use of extreme close-ups, so extreme that I felt as though I were falling into the actors’ sweaty pores.

Side note: there are two moments in the movie’s trailer that never made it to the film. In one, Haller is riding in the car with his daughter, who asks why he doesn’t have an office like her mother. When he asks her which “office” is more fun, she says his. “Boom,” he says, slapping the car’s headliner. It’s a sweet moment that defines his character, the state of his marriage, and his bond with his daughter, but it’s not in the movie. And then there’s a brief moment where Haller slides a handgun across a table to Ryan Phillippe, inviting him to use it. Never appears in the film. And it’s a shame because it suggests a more suspenseful showdown than the one they used. Let’s just say that McConaughey spends much of the final conflict sitting on a porch.

What about plot? I don’t want to give too much away. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t want to ruin it for you, and if you have, you already know the plot. Haller’s big case has him defending a club kid who may or may not have murdered a young woman. As a result, Haller finds that he, his family, and his friends have become the targets of someone’s rage. The bare bones of Connelly’s novel are here, but not the narrative voice and the nuances of character and plot. The story’s been stripped down to the point where it feels like a standard TV lawyer show but with better actors and those freakish close-ups.

OK, I admit it—much better actors. McConaughey’s fine as the over-confident lawyer who finds himself in too deep. And William H. Macy is excellent as his investigator. One of the director’s crimes is that he doesn’t use Macy enough. As small as his part is, Macy gives you the sense of the complete life of his character, a life that goes beyond the edges of the screen. Marisa Tomei is fine, too. The problem is that she isn’t given much to work with. The character’s a type—the ex-wife who still has affection for her former husband. For several years now, cable television has been giving us rich female characters like Katey Sagal in Sons of Anarchy, Edie Falco in The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie, Callie Thorne in Rescue Me, Toni Collette in The United States of Tara, and more–but not enough). And yet Hollywood, for the most part, continues to treat female characters as adornments that prove the hero’s heterosexuality instead of as fully three-dimensional, living, breathing characters. Hey, Hollywood! Looking for your lunch? Cable already ate it!