Memorable character can’t save ‘Miss Sloane’

Jessica Chastain leads a strong cast in Miss Sloane.
Jessica Chastain leads a strong cast in Miss Sloane.

Miss Sloane the character is fascinating.

As portrayed with a ruthless, reptilian sense of purpose by Jessica Chastain, the highly sought-after D.C. lobbyist is less flesh, bone and heart and more drive, ambition and barely concealed rage. If this swamp in which she thrives were ever drained, the alligator in pumps would still survive, snarling and snapping.

Miss Sloane the movie is not quite so fascinating. A rather cartoonish and not particularly credible political thriller from director John Madden (The Debt, Shakespeare in Love), it doesn’t live up to the ferocious promise of its lead character.

Elizabeth Sloane is so much at the top of her game that she’s a star player at the large, conservative lobbying firm run by George Dupont (Sam Waterston). Unsurprisingly, she’s a woman the firearms industry thinks would be a great ally to help defeat a proposed new gun law requiring background checks. In fact, industry heads think she can help it appeal to more women.

Boy, are they wrong.

Instead of gleefully signing on to oppose the measure, Sloane — who seems to have no sense of moral purpose beyond power, control and dominance — suddenly grows a conscience. Not only will she not help the gun manufacturers, she quits her position — taking much of her team with her in the process — to take a job at a boutique lobbying firm, run by the sympathetic and financially outgunned Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), that supports the new regulation.

Madden, working from a script by first-time feature writer Jonathan Perera, never helps the audience understand why this issue of all issues is so important for a raging, single-minded careerist like Sloane that she would jeopardize her status and standing over it. Because this crucial twist is never fully substantiated, it all just feels like a screenwriter’s conceit and it’s difficult to take the rest of the film particularly seriously.

Still, it is a hoot to see Sloane try and take down her former colleagues, like the unctuous Pat Connors (the always reliable Michael Stuhlbarg), with her Jedi mind tricks and Machiavelli-meets-Art of War gamesmanship. It helps that the rest of the cast, including Gugu Mbatha-Raw as one of Sloane’s newfound allies (whose passion for the proposed law is well explained) and John Lithgow as a senator, is good, too.

One of the most intriguing characters is Forde (Jake Lacy), the one person in Sloane’s life for whom her grim facade begins to crack, however briefly. The catch is that she has to pay for the privilege: He’s an escort.

Yes, Forde is a riff on the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype, while Sloane’s corporate-climbing coldness is just another powerful-woman cliché, but Chastain and Lacy show off a chemistry in their scenes that hints at an emotional realism the rest of the movie lacks.

Lacy (The Office, How To Be Single, Girls) is usually a bit of a doofus, so it’s good to see him in a more serious role.

Yet that’s not enough to save a movie that wants to show how smart and politically relevant it is. In fact, considering everything that has occurred in the world of American politics this year, Miss Sloane feels oddly behind the curve.

Of course, that particular lapse is outside of the filmmakers’ control. But they fumbled what was in their control, and that makes Miss Sloane the movie maddening. And it would probably make Miss Sloane the character mad, too.

Cary Darling: 817-390-7571, @carydar

Miss Sloane

 1/2 (out of five)

Director: John Madden

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, John Lithgow

Rated: R (strong language, sexuality)

Running time: 132 min.