It’s American election year and those mealy-mouthed Hollywood liberals have fired the first shot in their attempt to influence the result. In The Campaign, Will Ferrell plays Will Ferrell playing a four-term US congressman from a district so safe district no one will run against him. The mysterious Moch brothers — John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd — are billionaire industrialists (loosely and lazily based on the nefarious real-life Koch Brothers) who decide to bankroll another candidate, one who will be more easily influenced by their money and power. It’s hard to imagine anyone more easily bought than Ferrell’s Cam Brady but evidently it’s time for a change and they place their bets on lovable local tourism boss Zach Galifianakis, playing another of his trademarked limp-wristed-but-heterosexual naifs.
With the help of Dylan McDermott’s take-no-prisoners campaign management, Galifianakis turns into a genuine contender and the pressure starts to tell on Ferrell’s incumbent who stumbles from disaster to disaster. Notably — and pointedly — missing from all this is any discussion of policy or any kind of values beyond “America! Jesus! Freedom!” and “Support the Troops”. The two candidates are essentially the same which is why the Moch’s can change horses in the middle of the race so easily. It’s only at the very end that the film comes close to taking any kind of stand — American jobs are good, Chinese jobs are bad, and politicians should tell the truth about where their money comes from.
So, not a terribly sophisticated analysis then — which shouldn’t be a surprise when discussing a Ferrell vehicle — but director Jay Roach should get this stuff better than he does here. His most recent work was the Sarah Palin mini-series “Game Change”, which starred Julianne Moore, and he won an Emmy for directing “Recount”, about the 2000 presidential election and the hanging chads. Maybe television is smarter than cinema these days…
Even more disappointing is Sarah Polley’s follow-up to the sublime Away From Her which broke hearts everywhere as Julie Christie slowly lost her marbles in a snowy Canadian rest home. Her new film is called Take This Waltz (from the Leonard Cohen song) and it stars Michelle Williams as a young woman tempted out of her marriage by a handsome neighbour (Luke Kirby). In the kind of coincidence that really only happens in movies, they first meet hundreds of miles away from their homes in Toronto — at some kind of touristy historical re-enactment show where Williams is encouraged to “flog” an adulterer in the stocks.
This is the first of many clunky moments where Polley the writer and Polley the director collaborate to make sure the audience don’t miss any of the points they are trying to make. Where Away From Her was subtle and careful, Take This Waltz is often heavy-handed and un-confident. It takes a brave stab at undermining traditional rom-com techniques in the service of drama and some of it works well. Seth Rogen plays the decent husband and in a neat role-reversal he’s a cookbook writer — usually in rom-coms the female is a caterer or pastry chef — and comedian Sarah Silverman brightens up proceedings as the funny best friend (although her arc is signalled way too early and too often).
Audiences will be divided about Williams’ dilemma. Should she stay with the funny and devoted — but unexciting — Rogen or take the leap with the intense (and very fit) object of temptation? Whatever she chooses, Hollywood usually dictates that she should be punished for her transgressions by at least feeling guilty and miserable — that’s a convention that Take This Waltz can’t avoid — and the “will she/won’t she” seems to take an age to resolve.
Alternately insightful and excruciating — and featuring another example of why Williams is the best actor of her generation — Take This Waltz has too many missteps to really flow. More frustrating than rewarding, at least it does manage to make you care enough to want to argue about it afterwards.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 15 August, 2012.