It’s about time that Jason Biggs (American Pie) and Joel David Moore (Avatar) got a worthy vehicle of their own; it’s just a shame the underwhelming Grassroots, despite an enticing premise, doesn’t give them a whole lot to work with. Set in Seattle in 2001, writer Phil Campbell (Biggs) is fired from a freesheet newspaper, and decides to become the campaign manager for his pal Grant Cogswell (Moore), who is standing against long-time incumbent Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer) in the City Council elections. Slowly but surely, Cogswell’s campaign gains momentum, seeming to prove a legitimate risk to McIver’s office.
What perhaps strikes us most about Stephen Gyllenhaal’s (father of Maggie and Jake) film is how low the gag-o-meter is, and that’s because, really, Grassroots is not much of a comedy. Blame either the script or the marketing department’s choice to make a poster which features Biggs in a bear suit, but the film confounds expectations while not managing to actually overcome them; we expect a comedy, and though Biggs and Moore are clearly capable of more than we’ve seen, the script simply doesn’t know what it wants to be and satisfies as neither comic or dramatic. It is as though they wanted to make a serious film but realised it wouldn’t wash commercially, so added some underwritten “laughs”.
The screenplay also too often feels like a lecture about Seattle; Moore’s obnoxious character – who, admittedly, is supposed to be such – rattles off a slew of acridly left-wing rhetoric that even ardent liberals are likely to sneer at, as the ham-fisted script fails to reconcile or adequately satirise it. Furthermore, though difficult to skirt around given its rooting in real life, the film’s use of 9/11 feels forced and manipulative; Gyllenhaal saddles himself with that spectre, and it bogs the film down for a good quarter-hour. Just because it’s true doesn’t mean it can’t seem contrived.
Grassroots fares better when examining the pragmatism and baby-step politics of the titular movement, appreciating that if Cogswell can knock McIver’s majority down to 50% or below, then it will be a huge victory of sorts. The script is to, to its credit, smart enough to note how small-time politics runs in very much the same way as the biggies, though doesn’t run far enough with this notion. These more interesting moments are regrettably sandwiches between plenty of stagnant relationship drama; Phil has to pit his political passions against his relationship with Emily (Lauren Ambrose), a fine waste of a part for the excellent Six Feet Under star. Much like the central narrative, this drama has a few interesting points to make, but ends up reverting to truisms, sentiment and even a sprinkle of political caricature, quickly banishing itself from our minds in the process.
While its tempered regard to compromise and the small victories of politics is admirable, this sentiment is buried beneath simplistic moral platitudes which undermine the importance and emotional power of Cogswell’s work. For what it’s worth though, Grassroots features Cedric the Entertainer’s best performance to date.
Grassroots is released in the UK on November 9th.
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