It's the rare political satire that really works -- if only because real politics are so much weirder and painfully amusing than anything a writer could concoct. Exhibit A: Mark Sanford, disgraced governor of South Carolina, announcing he will run for Congress (where he'll fit right in).
If finding a satire that really works as comedy is rare, finding one that works -- and grabs the audience -- is ever rarer. That's because to appreciate satire, you need to be paying attention -- to the movie you're watching, to the world around you on a daily basis.
Thus, while Armando Iannucci's In the Loop won critics' hosannas and awards, it went virtually unseen. The same of David Mamet and Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog, a phrase many people use without having seen the actual film; it made money but try to find someone under the age of 40 who saw it.
All of which is by way of saying that I admire the impulse of filmmaker Bill Guttentag, whose Knife Fight opens today (1/25/13). But you need better material than this to reach even the audience that might appreciate what you're going for. The funniest, most frighteningly real satire of behind-the-scenes election-campaign manipulation was Game Change, which was a true story (about the selection of Sarah Palin to be a vice-presidential candidate in 2008) that was wilder and more jaw-dropping and mind-boggling than anything Guttentag has imagined in Knife Fight.
Ultimately, this is yet another clichéd story of a cynic who gets in touch with his inner idealist. That would be Paul Turner (Rob Lowe), who crafts campaign strategy and tactics for a host of candidates around the country, all facing reelection challenges in the coming months. There's' the progressive Southern governor (Eric McCormack), with an eye for the ladies (gee, can't imagine who that's based on). There's an incumbent senator (David Harbour) battling rumors that he fools around. And then there's the well-meaning but politically inexperienced pediatrician (Carrie Moss), who believes she could fix the flaws in the health care system if she were elected governor of California.
Lowe apparently had a free moment in his busy schedule of Lifetime true-crime movies. He literally phones in his performance, as a consultant who spends more than half his screen time on his cell, talking to his clients. Lowe seems to have lost all human animation; instead, he emulates human reactions, as though they were a color-by-number scheme.
But Guttentag's script is bereft of actual humor or drama. Instead of dramatic situations, these are textbook case studies for a poli-sci primer in the modern American political campaign. The characters are, at best, two-dimensional, meant to be examples and types, rather than actual people.
Knife Fight is about on a level with the kind of comedy that shows up on Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel, with casts full of aging former TV stars. Movies like this give political satire a bad name.
Find more reviews, interviews and commentary on my website.