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MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Ides of March' superbly acted political thriller

THE IDES OF MARCH

(R)

3 stars out 4

If you make the bold move of giving your film a title like "The Ides of March," you better deliver some heavy-duty goods. It's got to be barbaric, overpowering, seething and ruthless and perhaps include a murder or two.

For those unfamiliar with the origin of the phrase, it is associated with the assassination of Julius Caesar at the hands of his most trusted colleges and advisors. While there are no literal assassinations in "The Ides of March" there are several people attempting to assassination other peoples' character.

The movie does many things quite well. It's got a phenomenal cast and every one of them delivers a pitch-perfect performance. Among the six principals are three Oscar-winners (George Clooney, Marisa Tomei and Philip Seymour Hoffman) and three others (Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood and Ryan Gosling) that will likely win an Academy Award some time in the future.

It is usual if not expected for characters in political thrillers to go ballistic and bombastic while standing on their soapboxes and getting all self-righteous; it's the nature of this cinematic beast. There is none of that here, which is a both a blessing and a curse. People speak in carefully measured tones -- often in whispers and frequently without emotion -- but whatever they're talking about is always very serious and threateningly vicious. Nobody takes any prisoners.

In adapting the Beau Willimon stage play "Farragut North," co-writers Willimon, Grant Heslov and director Clooney further buck the political thriller mindset by placing the focus on the people we rarely see in presidential campaigns: the handlers. Based on what we see and kind of what we already know, these are the guys who treat candidates (in this case Clooney) like a piece of clay. He's handsome, photogenic, fast on his feet and eminently likeable; but maybe not totally electable.

Hoffman and Giamatti play opposing campaign managers who are both grizzled, jaded campaign vets and engage in cat and mouse, chess-board politicking. One's graying, the other balding, both sport mid-life paunches and each plays for keeps. For better or worse, these guys do what they do not out of idealistic passion, but solely to achieve a higher rung on the professional ladder -- which is kind of sad. They're market specialists; they're paid to sell a candidate and make deals, not to actually believe in their guy.

Stephen Meyers (Gosling) plays Hoffman's underling and still has the passion. He actually likes the guy he works for and masterfully knows how to work the press, massage various egos while juggling a dozen balls at once -- without ever breaking a bead of sweat. Not a complete machine, Meyers is also prone to behave like a human when not on the clock -- something which serves him well professionally and cruelly preys on his personal psyche.

Wood and Tomei both have the unenviable task of being women in what is mostly a boy's club story and both shine brightly during their limited screen time. Their respective characters are both trying to prove themselves in distinctly different ways and neither is given appealing options.

"The Ides of March" was a logical next step for Clooney the director. One of Hollywood's highest profile stars and off-screen political/humanitarian activists, he also recognizes his days as a leading man are numbered and has wisely limited himself to a supporting role here. He has the drive and fervor of Warren Beatty, the suave cunning of Cary Grant and the knowing, self-awareness of Clint Eastwood.

Slowly but surely, Clooney will begin to start acting less while writing and directing more. He's now made four films and while none of them are out-and-out great they're all very good. He picks his material carefully and gets the best talent in the industry to appear in his movies. And he does so, like Meyers, without ever looking like he's trying too hard.

Even if you don't like him professionally or subscribe to his brand of politics, you have to tip your hat to Clooney; he is sharp, totally cognoscente of his talents and limitations and is making the most of all it -- and he's only going to get better at it. Bully for him. (Sony/Columbia)