BFI London Film Festival 2012 – ‘Grassroots’

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Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal

Written by Stephen Gyllenhaal & Justin Rhodes

Starring Jason Bigs, Joel David Moore, Lauren Ambrose, Cobie Smulders, Cedric The Entertainer

In a break from tradition the London Film Festival has grouped its numerous screenings into themed strands for the first time this year, with permeating titles such as ‘love’, ‘comedy’, ‘cult’ and ‘dare’ suppossedly giving the punters an idea of the themes and genre of the movies they are seeing. There are bound to be aesthetic casualties due to this decision, as one persons cult film is another persons thriller, and the notion of comedy, of what is funny always being a rather divisive opinion. It’s within this category that Grassroots squats, although it could just have easily settled into the ‘think’ or ‘debate’ categories given its politically charged back-drop, as unfortunately although inoffesnsive this is a tepid and utterly unremarkable film, with very little in the way of laughs.

Based on a true story we’re in Seattle, early 2001, and wannabe journalist Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs) has just been sacked from his tenuous position at the local hipster periodical. Cast adrift with his rising star girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose) making great strides in her writing career Phil hooks up with his friend Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore, the nerdy one in Avatar) who is a rather frazzled politically committed soul, a failed music critic who has a rather odd penchant for dressing up as a polar bear. Seattle has a squandered mono-rail system which Cogswell loves, and he decides to stand against the incumbent City Councilman Richard McIver (Cedric The Entertainer, pretty convincing in a non-comedic role) on the platform of reviving the transport system and help the poor and disenfranchised with a public utility. With Phil recruited as a greenhorned Campaign Manager the duo see their unlikely scheme slowly catch fire with the young community, but will they have to compromise their ideals in order to win?

Both Biggs and Moore are amiable enough although the latter is a bit of an idiot, but there is simply no smart lines of either a political or comedic nature in this film, the drama is never, well, dramatic and the side plot of Biggs relationship status with the disapproving Emily never gains any real momentum or interest. It’s a curious thing, its a trope I’m noticing in a few recent films actually, where a central narrative pivots on the strained relationship between men who want to follow their idealistic passions versus their pragmatic, realistic female companions, it has a faintly misogynistic tone which is really quite unnerving. One also fails to see how outside of the hermetic bubble of Seattle this would be of much interest to a wider audience, as the satiric fangs are declawed and the resultant effect is that of being nuzzled by a lemur when it should be Cogswell’s polar bear tearing your face off. I’ve never been to Seattle but I got a very tangible feel of the city which is one thing the film can be proud of, but the themes of idealism withering in the face of pragmatism would have been easier to stomach if there was genuine humor to sweeten the pill. Grassroots is tepid and never finds any purchase, with little contribution to make to the cesspit of modern political discourse, on either the micro or macro level.

John McEntee

The 56th BFI London Film Festival runs Oct. 10th  – 21st.  Please visit the festival’s official website for a complete schedule of films, screening times, and further information on Grassroots.

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