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George Clooney's snappy, cynical Ides of March isn't much fresher than Caesar's

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As a director, George Clooney seems eager to prove he's shrewd, competent and flexible, capable of handling any genre. So eager, in fact, that when he gets behind a damn camera, his movies come out impressively mounted but fussy and a little hollow, like toothpick replicas of masterpieces. For his debut, he took Charlie Kaufman's batshit-crazy script for the Chuck Barris biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind as a license to steal, practically cutting a rug with his loose, stylish, retrograde camera trickery and transitions.

But for all its thinly veiled Bush-bashing, his follow-up Good Night, and Good Luck. had little more on its mind than the Cloon wanting to make a black-and-white movie in this day and age. As for his silly football-of-yesteryear comedy Leatherheads, it had loving period detail and a pleasant old-school scrappiness — but really, what the hell was that movie about?

For his latest movie, The Ides of March, Clooney wants everyone to know that he's available to do paranoid political thrillers as well. And though it still seems a bit like the work of someone who woke up one morning and decided that, yes, today will be Direct Like Sidney Lumet Day, its cold-blooded spintrigue and brisk cynicism may be the best fit for his directorial talents yet.

Along with directing and co-writing the movie, Clooney takes on the role of Democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris. As sharp and charming as the dude who plays him, Morris is a man looking to get voters by running a campaign free of compromise and full of staunchly progressive ideals. But he serves mostly as a supporting character and catalyst to the movie's protagonist, campaign aide Stephen Myers (the ubiquitous Ryan Gosling).

A hotshot political junkie, Myers is the kind of cat who can't stop watching the news even when he's in bed getting it on. But he also firmly believes that the promising Morris is the right guy to be president. As expected, he gets a rude awakening when a potential scandal threatens to damage the campaign. He finds himself not only trying to clean up the mess but also trying to keep his job when a wrong move jeopardizes his standing in Morris' circle.

Imagine Primary Colors with no sense of humor and a pinch of soul-crushing bitterness, and you pretty much have March. Adapting Beau Willimon's 2008 play Farragut North (inspired by Howard Dean's failed presidential campaign in 2004) with the playwright and Grant Heslov, Clooney strives to peel away the assured façade of political campaigning to reveal the desperate ugliness underneath. The movie starts off deceptively earnest, all but channeling a rerun of The West Wing as characters spout pragmatic political shoptalk amidst flickers of human vulnerability.

But when the obligatory idealism-testing scandal arrives on cue, the movie, like Clooney's direction, takes a welcome sinister turn. The characters morph into cunning, cutthroat sons-a-bitches, ready to throw their own mommas under the bus as long as they don't get outsmarted and/or screwed over by the other guy. Clooney corralled a top-notch cast to play the jackals circling Gosling's naive wunderkind, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei and Jeffrey Wright, and he shoots their juicy backroom backstabbing in appropriately cold light.

Yet despite the movie's cynical snap, what Clooney does in March remains, shall we say, kind of cute. He's out to prove he has the chops to be just as gritty and bare-knuckled an auteur as the late Lumet, who used to drop all-star urban morality plays like this in his sleep. And at its best, March plays like a shifty shout-out to bleak-ass '70s political thrillers like Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View and All the President's Men — toxic cocktails of Zapruder and Watergate, drained by "recent events" of even The Manchurian Candidate's gallows humor.

As with most of Clooney's movies, though, March seems more bold and daring in spirit than execution. You get a sense Clooney believes he's giving us the straight dope on contemporary politics, showing how quickly idealism can die on the road to the White House — which probably made for eye-opening revelation around the time they were swearing in James Madison. But one need only turn on CNN and see our current president caving in and compromising day after day to realize that Clooney is breaking yesterday's news.

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