Talking in Circles
Something about Rob Lowe—maybe his youthful energy and good looks, maybe his bounce back from an early career scandal—must radiate politics. He’s played the White House Communications Director on The West Wing, a senator on Brothers and Sisters, and a city manager on Parks and Recreation. Now, in Knife Fight, he takes center stage as Paul Turner, a freelance political strategist whose BlackBerry lights up whenever a campaign needs his aggressive brand of spin.
Though Knife Fight is a feature film, it feels, at times, like an elaborate television pilot. The plot sets up for a season’s worth of schemes and the stars are familiar from TV, including Julie Bowen, Eric McCormack, and Jennifer Morrison, as well as Lowe’s West Wing compatriot, Richard Schiff, here playing a shady operator whose primary function appears to be making Paul look less sleazy by comparison.
This contrast typifies the movie’s own unsure relationship with Paul: it portrays him as slick, connected, and crafty, a master of spin, but also insists that he spins with his heart in the right place. The movie covers the run-up to re-election for two of Paul’s clients, a Kentucky governor (McCormack) and a California senator (David Harbour). Despite potential sex scandals on both counts, both men are presented as basically decent, if foolish in their handling of personal matters: they want to stand up to Wall Street, raise taxes on the rich, and so on. Though Knife Fight dodges references to actual political parties, it’s refreshing that the candidates state positions on issues, preferable to the usual satire where everyone is presumed to hold the same level of corruption. Still, the men’s views are so agreeable, and their good policies/bad decisions divides so similar to each other, that the movie barely satirizes anything.
Perhaps Knife Fight doesn’t mean to be satire. Indeed, much of its dialogue, chunky with exposition and explication, seems more interested in educating. When Paul meets with Penelope (Carrie-Anne Moss), a California doctor who wants to run for governor, he attempts to convince her otherwise, repeatedly invoking the frailties of politicians’ and the dangers of campaigning, all in the tone of an Intro to Cynical Media Studies course. “This isn’t a video game or a TV show,” Paul asserts. If his comparison is specious (who thinks campaigning is like Halo?), it’s fun to see a fast-talking, self-confident Lowe (he even lets slip his signature staccato pronunciation of “literally” from Parks and Recreation), but for the most part, the screenplay sets him talking in circles.
When it’s not explaining the gulf between idealism and political realities, the movie devotes a surprising amount of time to fake news footage and fake campaign ads, none of them very convincing. The ads serve as visual shorthand, informing the audience what the candidates are saying about each other in convenient 30-second bites. But cutting to six or seven of these ads, as director/cowriter Bill Guttentag does, screeches the movie to six or seven halts. The movie struggles to focus, as entire subplots, like plans by Paul’s assistant (Jamie Chung) to leave politics for a family-mandated career in medicine or Paul’s romance with a reporter, are afforded less screen time than the fake ads.
The volume of campaigning takes a toll on Paul, too. As he ping-pongs between two philanderers, the movie increasingly softens its faux cynicism, positioning the virtuous, hardworking (and, again, non-party-affiliated) Penelope as his savior, someone who will “make a difference” and won’t hit on an intern. Like most of the movie’s political and internal battles, Penelope’s story comes to resolution a little too easily: Paul and his colleagues are adept at waving away moral contradictions, and the movie does this too.
Knife Fight doesn’t aspire to be as viciously funny about the political process as, say, In the Loop (2009). With charming stars and a story about how charm works in politics, GUttentag’s movie is rather too likable. Eventually, its likability becomes a liability.