The Ides of March 

What a bunch of assholes. (It's OK to say assholes — we're in a movie.) What a bunch of fucking asshole motherfuckers. (It's OK — we're in an R-rated movie.) What a bunch of ... Democrats? (It's OK — we're in a George Clooney movie.)

The Ides of March, in which Clooney stars as an impossibly fair-minded presidential candidate and directs an impossibly smart cast, posits an ugly primary race in some other year, run by Democrats of unrecognizable viciousness. It's both love letter to liberal politics and Dear John note to the compromised Obama administration. But those poles aren't so far apart, so to set far-left idealism against the necessary crush of the electoral machine, Ides amps up the melodrama. Embarrassingly predictable melodrama. This is the rare political movie with a plot that's too easy to follow.

The fault seems to lie with the source material: Beau Willimon's 2008 play, Farragut North, which the writer based partly on Howard Dean's failed 2004 presidential campaign. Clooney plays Mike Morris, as idealistic a contender as the movies have rendered — which is to say, not someone a Democratic National Committee run by "an asshole," as various characters refer to him, would have let get this far. Beyond that lapse, the script, credited to Clooney, Willimon and Grant Heslov, has its moments. The writers assign a few short, stagey scenes to everyone in the cast but Clooney, hoping that we'll confuse the actor-director's generosity for his character's, doing a job the screenplay fails to accomplish.

And, oh, that cast. The story's fucking asshole motherfuckers are inhabited by Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei and Jeffrey Wright, none of whom end up doing very much except make you wish for more.

But even the best of those finely acted moments halt the movie's already scant momentum. We know it's time for another little speech whenever an A-lister shows up. It all plays like sixth-season West Wing.

Those speeches are invariably delivered to — and not by — Stephen Meyers, the 30-year-old campaign whiz kid at the story's center. Ryan Gosling makes Meyers a brooding cipher, which works fine when the point is attracting the intern played by Evan Rachel Wood, but it's hard to buy him as a sought-after idea man. Giamatti, in top, droopy type here as the cynical chess master running the adversary's campaign, is forced to speak to Gosling like a desperate man trying to pick up a hot prospect at last call. "You make it look easy," Giamatti says, though Meyers has yet to make anything look easy — or hard. (Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the film's producers, would have made a more kinetic foil for Clooney, but he seems uninterested these days in starring roles that don't require period costumes, Boston accents or both.)

If a loner adhering to a strict internal code sounds like a familiar Gosling part, it's because Meyers could be the nameless wheelman the actor played in last month's Drive. Like that oddly motivated character, Meyers gets his gyroscope wobbled by a woman. This time, it's Wood, at her most hungry and least stable. Even John Edwards would know better than to get in bed with this woman. Didn't Gosling see Mildred Pierce? Didn't Clooney?

As though still atoning for his whiny but well-reviewed turn in Blue Valentine, in which he borrowed Nicolas Cage's Peggy Sue Got Married voice to play a far more aggressive version of Cage's striving loser, Gosling dims his wattage lower even than he did in Drive. But his economy of expression fails to convey crucial information, and so does that undercooked script. Events that provide crucial motivation to Meyers occur off-screen. The aim may be to keep us wondering about Morris, but the movie gives up on moral ambiguity well before the credits roll.

Photographed (by Phedon Papamichael) in spring drizzle and harsh junior-suite light, the movie looks more believable than it sounds. And the one scene that allows Hoffman and Giamatti to leer at each other in full Spy-vs.-Spy mode is almost enough to forgive some of the story's sins. But Ides is a lame duck.

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