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Movie Review: #MissSloane

The political drama Miss Sloane fails to lobby us into Oscar territory.

Review by Matt Cummings

In a time when women were supposed to be leading our country, Miss Sloane arrives to remind us of what could have been. Unfortunately, this message about a headstrong female Washington lobbyist loses us early with an unappealing director, a paper-thin plot, and suffers from a ton of convenient realism. If the good (but not impressive) performances weren't there to buffer these and many other gaps, we might have found ourselves voting for impeachment.

For Washington lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), life is about getting her clients what they want from the halls of Congress. Her boss Dupont (Sam Waterston) will sleep with NRA types, fudge travel records, and bully smaller firms into submission if it means a hearty paycheck at day's end. But when Sloane leaves the company to push Gun Control legislation with one of those smaller firms, Dupont turns to his bulldog Connor (the suddenly all-over-the-place Michael Stuhlbarg) to topple said legislation and ruin his former employee. What Sloane's new boss (Mark Strong) doesn't know is that deep down her new lobbyist is a mess: she's a pill-popper, ungrateful to employees like Esma (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and can only find meaningful connection with a gigilo (Jake Lacy). Determined to win at all costs, Sloane will travel a dark road of lies, manipulation and brinksmanship, struggling to prove that her abrasive personality does offer a shred of humanity to one of our country's most hot-button topics.

The problems begin early for Miss Sloane and continue to drag the film down into its less-than-appealing third act. There's never a sense of danger or even intrigue, with the center of attention focusing on Sloane as the Senate's investigation against her ramps up. But getting to that point takes some patience, as we're thrust into story lines that aren't critical to the outcome. The worst of these involves the Lacy subplot, which is supposed to humanize Sloane but only puffs out 10 minutes of unneeded story. These exchanges offer us few insights into her MO, short of us learning that she had to lie a lot as a child. Miss Sloane also stumbles to teach us the ins-and-outs of Gun Control, relying on the mundane relation of facts instead of pressure-cooking the topic and throwing our actors into the broth. And while some degree of knowledge is gained, the results are never satisfying, instead serving as a plot device with no moral anchors for us to latch on.

And in so doing, Miss Sloane fails to tell the most important story of all, that of the titular character. This should be a frank lesson about a frosty woman with people issues watching her career succumb to a firestorm, but instead her treatment of others draws them in like a hapless stooge. Among the worst of these character violations is the way Mbatha-Raw's Esme is treated almost like a pawn in a chess game, ready to be reminded of her dark past by the white queen. When Sloane attempts to assuage her terror in an airport afterwards, it's like Tony Stark trying to talk to Peter Parker in Civil War; but there Stark's lack of humanity comes off as insanely comical. Here, we realize that Sloane has been purged of all human skills, thanks to Writer Jonathan Perera's limp script. It's as if he and Director John Madden forgot how people really work, that Sloane's almost clinical approach to her employees isn't going to make her more successful but just more hated. That plays itself out consistently against the character, especially when it's learned that she's working for Schmidt Pro Bono. There's no explanation as to why, and no incentive for us to stick around to see how it affects her. When the witch hunt in front of the Senate starts, a potentially cool reveal just makes Sloane look like she's protecting her own tainted image, rather than wrestling her former employers down because of their shady business dealings. It's that kind of convenient realism that gets tossed out when the script needs a kick in the pants.

Supporting cast performances range from good down to merely adequate, with Stuhlbarg and Strong getting the best of it. Connors' disdain for Sloane's defection and her unpredictability reveal some fun throw-down moments, but there's no deeper meaning behind them. Both Sloane and Connor are points of a sword, nothing more, revealing the complete lack a protagonist. We're constantly abused with paper-thin characters who remain tightly controlled and therefore never get a chance to become relatable people. A movie like this survives because we're meant to see real life through its lens. Instead, Sloane's Pro Bono employment becomes an excuse to view the process behind the enactment of federal legislation. Again, that's a very clinical view, and perhaps the least-appealing of the half-dozen alternate plots I was imagining. Chastain is a blind-buy for me every time, perhaps the best female actor we have. Much like her performance in Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain brings a lot of energy to Sloane, giving us those cold hard looks and the sense that she's one step ahead of everyone. It's too bad that we never see those moments of intensity evolve into something beyond the predictable (including the always mind-numbing destruction of a stack of papers on a desk). She's really the only thing keeping this movie from imploding any further, but Chastain can only do so much.

It's likely that Miss Sloane could have lived in the universe of The West Wing or the more recent Designated Survivor, but it had no interest in being that interesting. In fact, I'm not sure I know what Madden's point is to begin with. Is this a cautionary tale about our very democracy being overrun by special interests? Is it a character study of selfishness? Or perhaps it's just a series of experiences designed around a paper thin plot, relegated to be the least-appealing version of itself. Miss Sloane feels merely antagonistic instead of all the things it could have been. It's not quite Oscar Bait - that honor seems ready to be bestowed upon the Collateral Beauty, but it's hard to sing its praises.

Miss Sloane doesn't exactly satisfy, filling its long run time with gotcha moments instead of delving into Sloane's complex upbringing. A movie about lobbying should be filled with hard choices made by people who are used to winning, but it all feels like an HBO drama that would have played better had it more time to breathe. Its hopes for Oscar recognition feel remote at this point, not because it fails but because it doesn't succeed. Miss Sloane won't make you feel better about lobbying, Gun Control, or the worn-out Hollywood trope of redemption, because no one here is either likeable or realistic. That's a bad equation to present, and a more difficult one to market to people who expect something better out of this time of the year.

Miss Sloane is rated R for language and some sexuality and has a runtime of 132 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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