Politics is a dirty, mean-spirited, no-good business, and even the purest of souls who enter come out the other end tainted by the unavoidable compromises necessary to survive the experience. This comes as news to no one of course, least of all the filmmakers behind the new film Knife Fight… but that doesn’t mean they fully agree with it.
Paul Turner (Rob Lowe) is a campaign manager happily saddled with the nickname “The Master of Disaster.” When politicians are discovered in bed with a dead girl, a live boy or a quadriplegic orangutang Turner and his assistant Kerstin (Jamie Chung) are the ones they rely on to spin things back in their favor. His current slate includes an infidelity-prone Kentucky governor (Eric McCormack) in a tight re-election race and a California Senator (David Harbour) accused of sexual impropriety during a massage. Also begging for his assistance is a Mission District doctor (Carrie-Ann Moss) who’s decided she can reach and help the most people by running for governor. When Turner’s actions lead directly to a near tragedy though he’s forced to reconsider how best to employ his particular skill set.
“You don’t get the outsized talent without the outsized weakness.”
The inscrutable and untrustworthy workings of the political machine are not a new target for cinema as it offers a cesspool as deep as an ocean-worth of backstabbing, deceit and improper behaviors. Movies as varied as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Election and Dave offer humorous but sad glimpses into the people and actions that form our government. The shared theme between many of them extends to the optimistic injection of an outsider who comes in on the white horse of honesty and respect to reform the system into one the voters deserve.
Director/co-writer Bill Guttentag seems to have similar intentions here, but he never locks down how exactly he plans to do it. Its political commentary feels tame and neutered to the point that a few dirty words aside it feels like a TV movie. And while the film offers some satirical laughs it’s not nearly funny enough to be a labeled a successful comedy. It won’t come as a surprise, but it also wears its political leanings proudly on its sleeve with praise for President Clinton, knocks at Fox News and Democratic politicians who are wonderful people whose only flaws involve overactive libidos.
The film’s bigger missed opportunity comes with Moss’ way-too angelic clinic doctor. She makes her presence known here and there, but her story doesn’t truly begin until the third act by which point it’s rushed through to its conclusion. Even worse, that conclusion seemingly ignores everything the rest of the film made a point to say.
A certain edge is implied in the film’s title, but it never really comes to pass. Turner and his ilk play some low-key hardball instead, and by the time the movie decides its best thematic and narrative choice is to go soft the entire thing begins to feel like an exercise in the same naiveté it criticized just minutes earlier.
As much of a mixed bag as the script is the cast is the film’s strongest asset. Lowe does solid work as the far less evil Karl Rove character (and even manages a shout-out to Parks & Rec with his spectacular delivery of the word “literally”), and Chung shines in a role that refuses to play off her ethnicity or sexiness. Sure she kisses a girl twice, but that just adds character depth. Or something. Julie Bowen, Saffron Burrows and Richard Schiff (West Wing reunion!) also pop up as a reporter, governor’s wife, and behind-the-scenes sleazebag, respectively. At least two of them are fun to watch.
Knife Fight is well intentioned but ultimately extremely lightweight in both its presentation and presence. Fans of the cast and/or of political commentary may want to give it a watch, but it’s far from necessary viewing before or after the next election.
The Upside: Great cast; pleasant intentions; Jamie Chung is underrated (seriously, go see Eden people)
The Downside: Simplistic and obvious; feels like a TV movie; ending rings false
On the Side: Watch Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog for a more consistent take on the subject