REVIEW: Gosling and Clooney Bring Movie-Star Chops, and Movie-Star Stubble, to The Ides of March
George Clooney's The Ides of March is an actors' movie, a picture that gives performers some provocative things to do without necessarily providing a great story for them to hang onto. It's also a movie made for grown-ups, and Lord knows there are few enough of those around today. But this story of an idealistic young press secretary who finds his principles eroded at the hands of a corrupt Democratic presidential candidate keeps getting in the way of its own chin-stroking: It's carefully designed to make us think it's making us think, but in the end, what's it really telling us? That politics -- and politicians -- can be dishonest and ugly? Please don't stop the presses for that one.
But at least The Ides of March -- which was written by Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, adapted from Willimon's play Farragut North -- is neatly constructed, made with a respectful bow in the direction of classic Hollywood filmmaking. Clooney is sometimes a middling director (Leatherheads) and sometimes a terrific one (Good Night, and Good Luck), but at the least he's motivated by a desire to tell stories in a straightforward way without excess clutter or showiness. He also knows that even pictures that feature a lot of guys talking (and The Ides of March is definitely one of those) don't have to be visually dull: Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael sometimes lights and shoots the actors as if they were sitting for Hurrell portraits. At one point I found myself momentarily distracted by a small, artistically lit triangle of stubble below Ryan Gosling's lip, but my God, what stubble! There's a time and a place for movie-star whiskers, and this is one of them.
Gosling plays Stephen Myers, a canny young go-getter whose eyes glow like greenish-brown coals as he explains what he loves about the candidate he's working for, Clooney's Governor Mike Morris. Morris is one of those understated but charismatic figures who can make a rousing speech in a way that makes him sound both progressive and nonthreatening -- he's slippery that way (and, it turns out, in other ways too), but his principles do seem believable and sound. Stephen and Morris' campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the kind of guy who balances shrewd efficiency with the appearance that he just rolled out of bed), are trying to steer their boss through a tricky Ohio primary. Meanwhile, a rival campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), steps in to stir up trouble -- with his darting eyes and lizardy smile, he's a Beltway Beelzebub. And a New York Times reporter -- played with hungry-mutt persistence by Marisa Tomei -- pumps everyone relentlessly for information they don't want, or are unable, to give.
Stephen works hard, but he plays hard, too, and there are plenty of adorable young interns around to help out with that. One of the sauciest, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood, who does a fine job balancing brittleness and vulnerability), flirts with him brazenly, and he can't resist the bait. They end up sleeping together, and though Stephen hopes to keep things casual, he finds himself drawn in by the desperate secret she's been keeping.
As a director, Clooney orchestrates the action nimbly and with a degree of caginess -- he seems to enjoy the process of letting the cat out of the bag only bit by bit. And as an actor, he's admirably low-key here: He's a muted presence, ceding everything to Gosling.
In return, Gosling doesn't take the proverbial money and run; he just sort of saunters out the door with it. This is a restrained, simmering performance: When Stephen starts flirting with Molly, he's so suave he almost makes you forget he's using every trick in the book -- with his slightly downcast eyes and inquisitive smile, he's like the idea of flirting, personified. The routine is charming as hell, until later in the movie, when Gosling lets us see that Stephen's ability to get what he wants is hardwired into him -- his aggressive ambition is the fraternal twin of his idealism, and it's far less cuddly.
Gosling's performance is a whispered echo of everything that The Ides of March otherwise spells out. The chief idea here seems to be that even the most promising candidate can disappoint you. That might be a not-so-veiled criticism of our own beleaguered commander-in-chief, but I suspect Clooney intends it as more a rueful observation of the reality of human behavior. The Ides of March doesn't cut as deeply or as sharply as Clooney might like, but at least he found the right actor to navigate its dark emotional twists and turns. Gosling's Stephen, whether he's operating out of deep-rooted integrity or ruthless self-interest, doesn't seem to know what he's capable of until he goes and does it. Maybe that's how most people find their way into politics in the first place.