Director: John Madden
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
2 (out of 5) Globes
To its credit, “Miss Sloane” would never have been the you-go-girl rabble rouser America needs even if it had arrived on the heels of a Hillary election. It's much more "complex" than that. Its heroine, hot shot lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), inspires as much terror as respect — a no-nonsense pitbull with lipstick, to borrow a phrase from the anti-poster child for a strong, independent woman. Elizabeth is a pill-popping workaholic who’s always on, who pays for sex when she actually has the time, whose idea of chilling involves reading John Grisham. She knows she faces sexism on all sides, and has overcompensated with an intimidating black wardrobe and a ruthlessness that’s impressive as well as pitiable. She’s both an icon for feminism and a warning sign — a perfectly coifed, hallway-barreling example of how society can poison even its most Darwinian members.
“Miss Sloane” is a lot like her — or so it thinks. As directed by John Madden — a chameleon who happened to direct a Best Picture winner (“Shakespeare in Love”) — it’s sleek, crisp and cucumber cool. It’s also not as smart as it thinks it is, whereas its hero is exactly as smart as she believes. The movie is about gun control, but it’s not really about gun control. It’s no message movie, using the issue simply to offer a backstage look at how the meat of government is made. Chastain’s Elizabeth is a rock star lobbyist who abruptly decamps from a powerful firm right as the NRA becomes its latest client. She winds up working against her old colleagues, pulling strings and manipulating foes and allies alike, being crooked and underhanded and evil — but, you know, for the left. ("Miss Sloane" was produced by a French company, EuropaCorp, so she actually has a chance of getting America to embrace gun control.)
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This is what people have long called “adult dramas” — the kind of ostentatiously “serious” fare kids imagine their elders watch when they go to the movies. But just as adults tend to put on airs about maturing and figuring life out, “adult dramas” can still be silly. “Miss Sloane” isn’t above two out-of-nowhere twists that don’t make much sense upon closer inspection. And as an expose that pulls back the curtain to see how the world really works, it’s a mixed bag — some keen observations, some lazy stereotypes. It understands How We Live Now — how the masses have no attention span and can be easily manipulated by those with real power. It also likes to simplify. The pro-gun lobby firm is filled with hissable monsters (including honcho Michael Stuhlbarg), who yawn as the mother of a child murdered in a mass shooting cries on CNN and never learn how to pronounce her name.
The other side isn’t much better, though at least they have the saintly Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a gun control expert — with a secret! — who exists as this steely movie’s not-so-carefully concealed heart. She’s the one who gets to dress down Elizabeth for being cold and calculating, setting up her inevitable 11th hour flip-flop, which we knew would arrive eventually. First-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera can write passable knock-off Aaron Sorkinese — all of it spat out by a cast so Impressive it can waste John Lithgow and Sam Waterston —but you can see the calculation under his debut script’s every move, which plays like it was written with a how-to book. The plethora of venal characters all but scream “moral complexity,” and its nimble dodging of the gun control issue is akin to a politician carefully scripting a statement that neither confirms nor denies a stance. It exploits rather than explores, and when charged with such, Perera can always say that’s not what his movie’s about. “Miss Sloane” acts like an intelligent truth-teller that understands how America really works. But eagle-eyed viewers should be able to tell it’s mere dress-up, and not only because it thinks America would ever stand up to the NRA.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge