Upon leaving the critics’ screening of “The Ides of March,” a local reporter walked up to me with her videocamera and said “What did you think?” I quickly spouted back “This movie cements Ryan Gosling as one of the best actors of his generation.” Short, to the point, ready to be copy and pasted into a national advertising campaign … but is that how I really feel?
With all due respect to the more proven Leonardo DiCaprio, who will make another run for Oscar in “J.Edgar” next month, Gosling has taken a DiCaprio-esque path from teenage heartthrob to mainstream star. In the fall, Gosling will have commanded the screen in “The Ides of March” and “Drive” and risen up from “That Guy from “The Notebook”” into the Hollywood elite.
“The Ides of March” focuses on the presidential campaign of a Democratic governor (George Clooney, who also produced, directed, and adapted the screenplay from the play “Farragut North”) who would make any Democrat swoon. He cares about his fellow man, seeks to help the poor, save the environment, and remove student loan debt. His only flaws are his atheism and refusal to compromise his morals for votes. Yes, moral atheists exist. Of course, perfect politicians don’t exist in real life and certainly not in political thrillers, so it’s only a matter of time before the film reveals the governor’s vices. Seeking to hide those vices are Gosling and Phillip Seymour Hoffman (also hot in 2011 with “Moneyball”, though Hoffman is rarely described as “hot”), who do everything they can to keep the campaign ahead of the Democratic primary opponent whose staff is led by Paul Giamatti (Oscar-worthy this year for “Win Win”). Also entering the male-dominated cat-and-mouse political arena are a veteran reporter (Marisa Tomei, who keeps her clothes on for an entire movie!) and a young intern (Evan Rachel Wood, who does not).
This is a film about acting, with one of the best ensembles ever formed. All of the actors turn their parts into a dramatic tour-de-force and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Ensemble is not out of the question. But viewers who want something new and different will be disheartened to see that the film’s messages about truth, greed, and the American way have been presented better before and each of the actors, while strong here, has had a more Oscar-worthy performance elsewhere.
Still, “The Ides of March” remains engaging throughout, partially because of the story’s tight timeframe, focused exclusively on the Ohio Democratic primary. The candidate who wins Ohio is expected to win the Democratic nomination, so the stakes are high and the tension rises. Much of this dramatic tension comes from a strong score that hits all of the right notes and keeps the film moving.
Hollywood actors and powerful music weren’t needed to make the play it’s based on a critical and commercial success, however. The play, far less melodramatic, was strong because of its taut writing and does not even feature Clooney’s character on stage. Even with Clooney in a supporting role, though, almost every scene of “The Ides of March” focuses on Gosling’s character and there are close-ups so often and so intense he could probably use this film to audition for a facial cleanser commercial if he can’t find work. Not that he would need to, given that he’s one of the best actors of his generation.