Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

With The Ides Of March, his fourth directorial effort, George Clooney has a lot to say about behind-the-scenes politics. A known liberal, Clooney subverts his popular leftist stance and plays a corrupt Democrat, a charismatic governor from Pennsylvania who’s competing in his party’s primary race, for the honor of going head to head against the Republican’s golden pick for the presidency. At the heart of his campaign is a hotshot, 30-year-old political consultant (Ryan Gosling), who’s being courted to switch teams by the competitor’s ballsy campaign manager (Paul Giamatti), a move that, if Gosling’s character were to make, would crush his boss’ own campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Gosling’s world gets further complicated when he starts banging a sexy, flirtatious 20-year-old intern (Evan Rachel Wood), the daughter of the Democratic National Party’s president and harbinger of potentially campaign-destroying secrets.

As you can tell, Clooney has assembled a phenomenal cast, and everyone on board brings his or her A-game, just like the film’s star/director/co-writer does in back of the camera. And, for a while, The Ides Of March—based on Beau Willimon’s 2008 play Farragut North, itself loosely inspired by Howard Dean’s primary campaign—coasts on the strength of its technical merits and uniformly excellent performances. But there’s an obviousness to the film that curbs any resonance beyond aesthetic pleasures.

Consistently entertaining, The Ides Of March tells its ripped-from-the-headlines story darkly and swiftly. The cynicism at the film’s core is striking: There’s not an innocent character in the bunch, and the third-act twist is simultaneously downbeat and damning of real-life political figures. Yet the wannabe startling reveal is an amalgamation of damn near every widely known political sex fiasco in recent years; anyone who followed the 2007 John Edwards sex scandal will be able to predict where The Ides Of March careens into, though Clooney’s outlook is exceptionally sinister, and deeply tragic.

The actors at work in The Ides Of March are so on-the-mark that it's almost wasteful to cram so many strong turns into such a surface-level attraction. The true star of the show, Gosling does the most heavy lifting, embodying the character’s evolution from a cocksure, idealistic do-gooder to a backstabbing political survivalist with subdued charisma and internalized anxiousness. Gosling matches wits perfectly with Hoffman and Giamatti, both of whom are given a pair of riveting tit-for-tat dialogue exchanges with the younger actor. It’s easy to see why Clooney was able to grab such fine talent, aside from his own megastar pull: The Ides Of March is a true performance piece.

Which makes it all the more frustrating that this all-star ensemble wasn’t given something a bit more unpredictable to play with. As it stands, watching The Ides Of March is an experience akin to sitting alongside an Ernest Hemingway-caliber writer as he or she plagiarizes copy from last week’s issue of Time magazine: The craftsmanship is of the highest quality, yet the finished product is old news.

Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)