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knife-fight-(2012)

Well-intentioned but more than a little predictable and stiff, writer-director Bill Guttentag’s Knife Fight (2012) is aided immeasurably by a grip of strong performances, led by Rob Lowe’s central spin doctor and his various troubled clients. While the film never breaks any new ground and wraps up with an almost ridiculously happy bit of wish-fulfillment,  it ends up being a brisk, enjoyable watch, polished and refined but with just enough sharp edges to draw a bit of blood, from time to time. Fans of Lowe’s particular style, however, could do a whole lot worse.

Kicking off with an effective montage of political juggernauts through the ages, scored by Jimmy Cliff’s sunny “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” we quickly meet hot-shot political strategist/spin-guru Paul Turner (Lowe) and his faithful assistant, Kerstin (Jamie Chung, who also serves as our narrator). When we first catch up with Paul and Kerstin, their team are juggling a couple of burgeoning crises for a pair of wunderkind politicians: Governor Larry Becker (Will & Grace’s Eric McCormack) has been having an affair with his wide-eyed intern, Helena (Amanda Crew), and the story is just about to break wide, while Senator Stephen Green (David Harbour) has been accused of improper conduct by a masseuse, Tawny (Brooke Newton), with priors for prostitution.

As if that’s not enough to juggle, Paul and Kerstin also go meet with Dr. Penelope Nelson (Carrie-Anne Moss) as a favor to her brother, who also happens to be Paul’s old roommate. Turns out that Dr. Nelson, a crusading do-gooder who runs a free clinic dedicated to homeless people, wants to run for Governor of California and wants Paul and his team to help her. She’s idealistic, honest, eager to help and committed to change, which pretty much makes her the worst bet for a politician, ever. Paul tells her so but Dr. Nelson won’t take no for an answer, determined to win over the cynical spin doctor and turn him to her cause.

For Paul, “business as usual” involves any number of shady, suspicious or down-right “sub-legal” methods, all ably handled by his crack support staff, including Kerstin, his audio/video expert, Jimmy (AFI’s Davey Havok) and Dimitris Vargas (Richard Schiff), the shadowy operative who conducts the majority of Paul’s dirty work. When all else fails, Paul can always turn on the ol’ charm, as evidenced by his on-again/off-again romance with star TV reporter Peaches O’Dell (Julie Bowen), in order to get what he wants.

As more and more problems develop, however, Paul becomes increasingly disenchanted with a job that often involves smearing and “destroying” innocent people as a means to produce a better outcome: although the politicians, themselves, are corrupt assholes, Paul genuinely believes in their individual platforms and sees them as genuine vessels for real change and progress…if they could just learn to keep their flies zipped, that is. At one point, Paul equates what they do to drone warfare: they never even see the “collateral damage” of people like the Governor’s intern, so can’t think of them as “real people.”

With Paul’s actions becoming more and more difficult to justify (for him or anyone around him), he’s constantly confronted with the paradox that is Dr. Penelope Nelson, a figure who seems to be almost preternaturally pure and sincere. As Paul begins to see Dr. Nelson’s campaign as his ultimate route to salvation and inner peace, he must also confront his long-held beliefs about the need to run a dirty campaign and the inherent corruption of the American political system. Will he end up telling Dr. Nelson to “bring a gun to a knife fight” or will Paul, finally, be able to set aside all the bullshit and run an honest, genuine campaign? Is the old saying really true or, for a change, will the nice guys finish first?

With an intelligent, fast-paced script (courtesy of the director and Chris Lehane) and loads of solid performances, Knife Fight is an exceptionally painless watch, even if the film never really comes up with anything new to add to the debate. In essence, this is the same tale of “moral redemption in soulless job X” that we’ve seen more times in the past than can be counted, with an underlying thread of optimism that marks the film as a decidedly feel-good enterprise, despite the occasionally cynical tone and plot developments.

If the scenario is nothing new, Knife Fight’s ensemble manages to breath quite a bit of life into the material. It’s always nice to see Lowe in something like this and his performance as Paul comes across as a more serious, under-handed version of his ludicrously chipper character in Parks & Recreation. There’s enough nuance to allow for some personal growth but Paul, essentially, begins and ends as the same likable character. We might not always agree with his tactics but disliking Paul is about as easy as disliking a supremely cute kitten: pretty damn impossible.

Chung does a great job as Paul’s loyal assistant, although subplots about her sexual orientation and family background don’t really seem to go anywhere. Schiff, probably best known as Toby Ziegler on the West Wing, is solid as the shadowy Vargas, while Goth-punker Havoc is a ton of fun (and nearly unrecognizable) as the genius who whips up all of Paul’s political ads. Bowen and Burrows are good as the strong women who run the show behind the scenes, while Moss is quite believable as the idealistic candidate who just wants to make a difference. In a surprise bit of casting against type, McCormack does a bang-up job as the sleazy Governor, investing everything he says and does with so much smarm that he practically leaves a slug-trail. We also get a bit of stunt-casting with name-brand lawyer Alan Dershowitz serving as Tawny’s avaricious lawyer: needless to say, he completely owns the role.

Ultimately, Knife Fight is a good, enjoyable bit of political soap opera, although it lacks the extra “oomph” to really stick out from the pack: the film’s commentary never cuts quite deep enough, with a resolution that reminds of the golden age of Hollywood happy endings more than anything. That being said, Guttentag’s feature-film directorial debut has plenty of breezy charm, with the added benefit of Rob Lowe in a typically hard-charging performance. While precious little here should surprise anyone, there are times when a small, well-made and well-meaning film is its own reward. If you ever want to take a little vacation from the current reality of our political morass, fire up Knife Fight and give the good guys a chance to win, for once.

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