, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Is the phrase “honest, self-effacing politician” equitable to “jumbo shrimp” or “deafening silence”? Is it actually possible for someone who makes their living brokering deals, securing power structures, rewarding patronage and constantly campaigning to do what they’ve been elected to do and serve the average, every-day citizenry? Sure, there are plenty of examples of good, necessary actions taken by politicians stretching all the way back to the dawn of our political system: the concept of absolute evil is convenient for pop culture and entertainment but rarely plays out that way in real life. Even the very worst, most self-serving and vilely corrupt glad-hander out there is still capable of doing good…provided, of course, that it also benefits their bottom line.

Is there really such a thing as an incorruptible, sincere and tireless proponent for the average tax-payer, however? Are there really politicians who see their choice of career as a personal calling and chance for advocacy rather than a convenient way to achieve power, influence and wealth? The answer, at least based on writer-director Austin Stark’s The Runner (2015), is a resounding, firm “yes and no.”

We begin with Rep. Colin Pryce (Nicolas Cage), from Louisiana, and his passionate, fiery condemnation of “Big Oil” in the aftermath of the BP oil spill of 2010. There’s definitely a lot of Mr. Deeds in Pryce, especially as portrayed by Cage, whose intense earnestness has been a sort of cottage industry for the past few decades. There’s no denying that Pryce wants the best for the fishermen and blue-collar workers that compromise the electorate in his predominately African-American precinct: his speeches before the House and to the locals bespeak commitment and conviction far more than carefully planned rhetoric.

While Pryce might have all the best intentions as a political representative, however, it turns out that his personal life is much more of a shambles. The son of an alcoholic, philandering, former mayor who was known as a public mess as much as a civil rights pioneer (Peter Fonda, doing solid support work), Pryce shares a few too many genes with his daddy for comfort: chief being, of course, that he’s currently shtupping Lucy (Ciera Payton), the wife of one of the local fishermen that he’s supposed to be advocating for. Doh! Even better, Pryce is also married (Connie Nielsen, essentially reprising her role from the TV show Boss), which means that the whole situation is a powder-keg just waiting for an appropriate match.

That match ends up coming in the form of one whopper of a political scandal, the fall-out of which promises to thoroughly thrash whatever remains of Pryce’s career. As Pryce scurries around, attempting whatever measure of damage control he can, he finds that his proposed good deeds have become eclipsed by the mountain of negative press that surrounds him. Once “Big Oil” comes sniffing around the mortally-wounded Pryce, will he be able to hold on to what little values he has left or will he sell out the people who believe in him (along with his own soul) in order for one, last desperate chance to stay in the game?

Earnest, focused, deadly serious and, unfortunately, more than a little dull, Stark’s directorial debut (after serving as a producer for several years) doesn’t make a lot of obvious mistakes but also never rises above anything more than a passable time-waster. The story’s beats are overly familiar, by this point, much more capably echoed in TV shows like House of Cards or the aforementioned Boss: in fact, there were so many points during the film’s 90-minute run-time that directly reminded me of not only House of Card’s plot points but also its characters, cinematography and sound design that the film often felt like some sort of indirect homage to the series.

While the infidelity angle comes across as over-heated and melodramatic (Stark lacks the finesse to paint these scenes with anything less than the broadest brush strokes), the political machinations pack a little more punch, even if they’re given rather short shrift overall. Mad Men’s Bryan Batt turns in a great performance as a gently slimy BP executive whose attempts to court Pryce have the subtlety that too much of the rest of the film lacks.

It’s this schism, in the end, that probably does more to harm The Runner than any of the myriad minor issues that plague it: by splitting the focus between the scandal and the political maneuvering, neither aspect is explored to its fullest potential. There are some nice bits involving the apple not falling far from the tree, as far as Fonda’s character is concerned, and some generic “dark night of the soul” stuff from Cage (who pretty much specializes in that) but none of its interesting or novel enough to keep audience attention from wavering.

Ultimately, that’s kind of a shame: buried beneath the stereotypical sex scandal aspect, it’s clear that Stark’s film does, indeed, have something to say. While the story of a well-intentioned, but flawed, politician attempting to atone for his past transgressions is certainly nothing new under the cinematic sun, it’s not like that particular tale ever goes out of fashion, especially during our current political climate.

Craftwise, The Runner does what it needs to do in fairly unspectacular fashion: it looks and sounds fine and the large cast turns out a collection of performances that run the gamut from “getting the job done” (Nielsen, Payton, Wendell Pierce) to “fully invested” (Cage, Fonda, Batt, American Horror Story’s Sarah Paulson). The biggest problem, at the end, is that the whole thing is so predictable that it never subverts, tweaks or upends our expectations: if you’ve seen one film like The Runner you have, quite probably, seen much of what’s being offered here. Even Cage, widely recognized as the “wild card” of mainstream film, turns in the kind of subdued, middle-of-the-road performance that will, undoubtedly, remind one of at least half-a-dozen other, similar performances.

With little individual identity, The Runner manages to go the distance, yet never separates itself from the rest of the pack. We might remember the folks who are the first to cross the finish line…hell, we’ll probably remember the folks who are the last to cross it, too. All the other ones clustered in the middle, however? Just like in real life, it’s kind of hard to tell them apart.