This light political farce stars a rejuvenated Jason Biggs. It's just a shame he's surrounded by morons.
Forget the infantile basics returned to earlier this year with American Pie: Reunion, Jason Biggs is all grown up. His sensible and suited Phil Campbell is the backbone of Stephen Gyllenhaal's Grassroots, an eccentric hybrid of buddy movie, indie comedy and bluffers’ guide to local politics.
Seattle, 2001. Phil’s just been fired from his reporter job at The Stranger, and his loss is the gain of old pal Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore), who appoints Phil as campaign manager of his madcap scheme to run in the city council elections.
Will Grant, a lanky and foul-mouthed force of nature who pins campaign hopes on the single issue of the monorail be taken seriously? We’re used to politics as an arena for smooth operator types (see George Clooney in The Ides of March), and being given a naive idealist who's throwing his hat in the political ring as the film's central character is a genuinely compelling move. And especially as the story is based wholesale on real events, covered in the real Phil Campbell’s memoir, 'Zioncheck for President'.
But Grant is not an easy character to sympathise with. Once the spectacle of watching him yelling at passing cars and invoking various lavatorial metaphors wears thin, we’re left with a shrill, one-note character: girlfriendless, TV-less and dimension-less, he is the literal embodiment of a puppet politician.
Which is a shame because Biggs’s Phil is involved in a subtle and absorbing ideological drift. Initially in moral synchronicity with live-in girlfriend Emily (the always delightful Lauren Ambrose), his thirst for politics causes relationship tension. Emily fails to understand why he’s running a smear campaign against Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer), the only black councillor, and to the filmmakers' credit, her question is never fully dismissed.
Director Gyllenhaal (father of superstar children Maggie and Jake) is at his most interesting when presenting political tricks as being both intoxicating and self-serving. He has littered his first non-TV movie in over a decade with numerous satisfying diversions: lingering shots of a rainy but attractive Seattle; a slew of oddball support characters; and a chirpy soundtrack which includes Cake’s enjoyable and perfectly applied 'Long Line of Cars'. These elements cumulatively lift this brown-tinged, dialogue-heavy world onto a lighter plateau. It’s just unfortunate that in Grant Cogswell, we're forced to back such a loser.
Jason Biggs in a political comedy – will we laugh with or at it?
With… Also, at.
The film's Very Annoying Character looms large in the rear-view mirror.