‘Our Brand is Crisis’
David Gordon Green
Stars: Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Disarmingly fun for a George Clooney-produced movie based on a sobering political documentary, “Our Brand is Crisis” is a movie that allows you to catch a ride with monsters. Of course they’re involved in American politics. Sandra Bullock plays “Calamity” Jane Bodine, an infamous campaign consultant who retired to a remote mountain life dedicated to herbal tea and not smoking. She’s calm now, even boring, but she still allows herself to get lured away to Bolivia, whose incumbent president (Joaquim de Almeida) is suffering through a gruesome re-election. She’ll help export American election strategies, which is to say distract voters away from the fact that her pol is a tyrant.

Not that Jane and her crack team — comprised of at least one former ad guy (Scoot McNairy) trying on politics for a change — have even vetted him. Their services are simply up for sale to whoever can afford it. The middle section of “Our Brand is Crisis” puts on the blinders and scampers along with the campaign, undeterred by ethics of any kind. Running against a more likable, more Obama-ish candidate — who also has his own American team, led by Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), Jane’s snaky, horndog colleague-turned-arch-nemesis — our protagonists unleash brash moves, like telling de Almeida’s Pedro Gallo to amplify, not obscure, his prickliness. Even when he coldcocks a detractor in front of an army of smartphone-wielding plebes, Jane says to run with it, because apologizing looks weak.

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Little of what’s revealed is surprising, and the lack of anything novel to say about the modern political process is worsened by the way, in its first and last acts. Things turn serious and glum, with Jane spouting things like “If you fight with monsters for too long you become a monster,” which might have been airlifted verbatim from a Christopher Nolan “Batman” movie. 

This is where Clooney, the well-meaning sometime-scold, comes in. But the rest belongs to director David Gordon Green, a chameleon who can shift from Malickian po-faced (“George Washington”) to peerlessly goofball (“Your Highness”), sometimes in the same film. (“Prince Avalanche” is a fine example of the filmmaker's twin extremes.) Green is mostly having a blast, not just reveling in bad behavior but going along for the ride. His antiheroes don’t even care what Gallo will do once in office. They squee with every poll point bump, and are soon reduced to rampaging teenagers, drunkenly vandalizing Pat’s swanky hotel digs and even mooning their opponents after a big score.

Lately Green has been making dramas intimately constructed alongside screen icons: “Joe” with Nicolas Cage, “Manglehorn” with Al Pacino — movies where director and star seem to discover the movie side-by-side as it’s made. Even with a clean script and studio money, the same thing happens here. It’s closely tethered to Bullock. She’s more or less new to darker fare, but here she brings the same spunky, clownish verve she’s long brought to fizzy rom-coms to a film in which our heroes spin Machiavellian lies to an entire country. Jane is both a shark and a bundle of nutty energy, leading the way over a crack team of fine supporting players like Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Zoe Kazan. Green films them in roaming, Altmanesque shots of dense, playful adlibbing, the camera zooming and panning as though a tourist among the chaos. McNairy, as usual, is the secret VIP, playing an arrogant tool out of his depth, slipping in whines about Jane’s meaningless campaign slogans and the paucity of hand moisturizer. 

The good times have to end, and by good times we mean delighting as Americans oblivously wreak untold damage on another country. Thanks to Bullock's infectious glee, we're made to laugh when they laugh, cheer when they cheer and generally get caught up in the mayhem. We might even forget that what they're doing is terrible, and only too late realize that what we've been enjoying is the ensurement of a tyrant's reign. The last act puts too fine a point on this. Imagine if Michael Ritchie’s “The Candidate,” an obvious inspiration, went on long after its iconic punchline and found Robert Redford’s vacuous pol learning the true meaning of honoring the people. There’s even a young volunteer (Reynaldo Pacheco) who exists solely to be disillusioned. It still can't ruin what has been a genuinely subversive lark, simulating the bubble within which its oblivious characters live. And of course, better a sly good time than another heavy-handed message-mongerer.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge