Welcome to Monday Morning Review, a new feature here at Movies.com where we provide a review of a film the Monday morning after it arrives in theaters. As such, this review is written for people who have seen the film, and will discuss plot points, spoilers, etc, so read it only if you’ve seen it or if you don’t mind knowing everything that happens.
It is a real and regular mistake to confuse the unblinking search for plot holes with real film criticism, and such a narrow-minded approach can only lead to madness: Why are these street gangs singing about a girl named Maria? Who hears Kane say ‘rosebud’ in an empty room? Why does Willard persist in his mission to find Kurtz? These are all logical questions posed about films that don’t revolve around logic, and suggest a shallow viewing at best.
At the same time, in the thriller, plot holes do matter, because unlike the woven tapestry of a drama or the crazy custard pie of comedy, a thriller is most like a machine — which is why the phrase “clockwork” or “tightly-wound” comes up so often in discussing them — where a single missing piece makes the whole enterprise grind to a halt. It’s always interesting to see people who don’t know how to make thrillers tackle them — or, rather, people who don’t know how precisely to make a thriller work — because they might, perhaps, be condescending to the genre: It’s just a thriller. How tough can it be? The answer to that is, well, Alfred Hitchcock is generally considered one of the greatest directors of all time. And he made nothing but thrillers, and he made them superbly.
Ides of March, the latest directorial effort from George Clooney, is a prime example. Expanding on Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, it follows the trials and tribulations — many of which are self-induced — of cynically idealistic campaign media man Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) as he encounters personal and political crises while trying to earn sitting governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) the Democratic presidential nomination. The film is substantively altered — and expanded — from Willimon’s play; in the play, intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood in the film) has an affair with Stephen’s superior on the behind-the-scenes campaign staff; in the film, it’s Clooney’s candidate — which leaves her pregnant. Stephen gives her money for an abortion, drives her to the clinic — and then gets caught up in his own problems, with the panicked Molly then taking an overdose of pills. The tragedy makes the campaign stumble — a horrible accident, pills and booze — but Gosling blackmails Clooney with the facts into a new and better job.
Which, bluntly, is where Ides of March falls apart, as Molly is found dead next to the very pill bottles she got with a prescription from an abortion clinic, and any cop or journalist who can read could phone the prescribing doctors and unleash a scandal that would dominate news cycles and irreparably damage Morris. (Worse, for all the film’s talk about Molly needing cash, you can see the clinic nurse handing Wood back a plastic card with her paperwork — whether it’s a credit card or a medical coverage card, either way, it’s also traceable.) Woody Allen did something similar in Match Point — another film that requires cops to not do autopsies, read diaries or accept anything other than the simplest explanation for a dead woman. Willimon co-wrote the screenplay with Clooney and Grant Heslov — and it’s hard to imagine one of the three of them not thinking through the ramifications of the script’s changes from the play, but that’s exactly what seems to have happened.
I admire Ides of March for its snap, for its sense of language, for the delight it takes, and makes, from actors like Gosling, Clooney, Paul Giamatti and Marisa Tomei being profane and pragmatic — like a West Wing episode on steroids, crazed with rage — but the film’s misstep on a plot level, on the level of working as a thriller, was so damaging to me that it was less like a minor flaw in a garment and more like a hole in a boat that made it founder and sink. No, plot holes don’t matter as much in drama or musicals or in comedy — but they matter immeasurably in the clockwork guts of what’s supposed to be a thriller, where a gap of millimeters can make the film inert or shudder to a halt. The Ides of March is, for the most part, an entertaining political drama that works as a cautionary tale for power-seekers and power-brokers — but as a thriller, it’s more of cautionary tale to directors and screenwriters.