Samuel Goldwyn Films
Director: Stephen Gyllenhaal
Screenwriter: Justin Rhodes, Stephen Gyllenhaal, from Phil Campbell’s book “Zioncheck for President”
Cast: Jason Biggs, Joel David Moore, Lauren Ambrose, Cobie Smulders, Tom Arnold, Cedric the Entertainer
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 6/27/12
Opens: July 13, 2012
To get the full emotional appeal of this movie it pays to have lived in Seattle during the turn of the century, since “Grassroots” tells the true story of a race for a slot on the Seattle City Council. The picture looks highly improvised and consists almost exclusively of young people, since they appear to be the only ones with the time to work on a young candidate’s campaign. Stephen Gyllenhaal, uses a script he co-wrote with Justin Rhodes in adapting Phil Campbell’s 2005 book “Zioncheck for President: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics” (available on Amazon for $9.72 but also published as “Grassroots” for $15.99). The young fellow campaigning against the encrusted council member is running on a single issue: the extension of the Monorail, holding that his opponent is in the pocket of the contractors who want to build more roads and extend the subway line, thereby increasing pollution and shafting the poor neighborhoods.
You’d think from all the whooping and dancing around by the campaigners that they were electing the President, but in truth, even if they got their man elected, he would be only one vote out of nine members; hardly enough to convince the staid politicians to extend the Monorail—which to this day it simply is not.
What’s irritating from where I sit is that there are scarcely any adults in the film. Nobody on the campaign looks over thirty, they all yell at every opportunity, they dance, they worry about their significant others. At least they’re not texting while walking down the street oblivious to their surroundings.
The story finds Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs), newly fired from his job as a journalist with the alternative paper “Stranger,” worrying about how he will live without money, though once he is hired to be the campaign manager of his best friend Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore), he has a job offer with a major daily—which he turns down out of loyalty to Cogswell. Cogswell himself is eccentric, waltzing around in a big polar bear costume, acting as though on speed in delivering his one-issue message to the voters. One wonders how he got as far as he did, given his regularly unshaven appearance and his frenetic pace, talking about the need to extend the Monorail as though he was pushing the national health care bill (though the year of the action is 2001).
There’s a romance, of course, though Phil’s pixie-ish girlfriend, Emily (Lauren Ambrose) is on the verge of leaving him because their quarters are filled with loud youths day and night. The only mature person in this largely irritating movie is incumbent council member Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer) who, like Jason Biggs, is in his first wholly serious role.
Writer-director Stephen Gyllenhaal, who is the dad of Jake and Maggie, wants to plunge us into the camaraderie of a local campaign where he probably sides with Cogswell’s leftist views on the need to reduce the city’s pollution and allow the poor to get to work on a cheap, electricity-powered Monorail. That Nation books published the tome on which the movie is based is no surprise. Strangely, Sean Porter’s camera lenses never get wet as there is not a single day of rain—in Seattle!
Rated R. 100 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – C
Technical – C+
Overall – C+