Earlier this year, movie critic (and ubiquitous blurb factory) turned writer-director Rod Lurie made an inauspicious debut with Deterrence, a stagy, low-budget drama starring Kevin Pollak as a cigar-chewing U.S. president forced to decide whether to use a nuclear weapon while stranded in a Colorado diner. Lurie's inexplicable sophomore effort, a return to the outer reaches of political plausibility, may not represent much of an advance in terms of quality or sophistication, but it amps up Deterrence's bubbling-under hysteria into absolute giddiness. As president Jeff Bridges' term nears its end, the death of his vice president necessitates the appointment of a successor, a position for which Bridges chooses Ohio senator and Republican-turned-Democrat Joan Allen. What should be a smooth confirmation process turns ugly, however, under the guidance of committee chair Gary Oldman, made up like a 19th-century illustration of a Dickens villain to play a bitter conservative with no intention of seeing a female turncoat installed in the White House. After turning up rumors and photographs relating to an alleged multi-partner drunken tryst conducted in Allen's college days, Oldman's congressional hearings turn into an investigation of her moral character. In case viewers could possibly miss the film's echoes of the Clinton-Lewinsky imbroglio, Lurie throws in a few explicit references to it, but The Contender contributes a crucial difference: Whereas the Lewinsky affair reduced a leader to life-size by exposing how easily he fell prey to everyday desire, Lurie's film blows the scandal up to a near-operatic scale, with unmistakable heroes and villains and one outsized dramatic moment after another. "The American people can stomach a lot of things," says one character, "but the one thing they can't stomach is the image of a vice-president with a mouth full of cock." That pretty neatly sums up the feel of the film: breathlessly melodramatic and never once too smart for its own good. Restlessly directed and infinitely quotable, The Contender moves so swiftly and unpredictably that he makes it easy to overlook its slightness. Having never given a disappointing performance, Allen's solid work comes as no surprise, but her character remains as unknowable by film's end as if we'd encountered her on CNN: She's a great actress stuck in a world as complex as that of a campaign ad. All of which leaves a film that, though it seems to possess an odd sincerity in dealing with issues of privacy and sexual equity (check out the "For Our Daughters" closing-credits dedication), essentially spends two hours wallowing in scandal for its own sake. It's a strangely exhilarating wallow, however, for reasons that can't be entirely what Lurie intended—and with more than a few moments that prompt the question, "What kind of movie is this?" It may be junk, but it's uniquely compelling junk.
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