‘Grassroots’: Down and dirty

July 17, 2012


There’s a certain rowdy spirit to Stephen Gyllenhaal’s “Grassroots,” now playing in limited release, that gives the fact-based comedy-drama a surprising vitality for a movie that seems so schematic.

Based on a true story, the film stars Jason Biggs as a journalist named Phil Campbell, who is fired from his job as a reporter for an alternative weekly in Seattle during the summer of 2001. He lives with his girlfriend Emily (Lauren Ambrose) in a house with several other people and he’s got few prospects – until he gets a call from a pal named Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore).

Grant is an out-of-work music critic and the kind of friend everyone seems to have one of. He’s full of opinions and theories about the way the world works, and he’s unafraid to spout them – loudly. He’s eccentric and demanding of his friends, kind of a pain in the ass to be truthful. As I said, we all know someone like that for whom we make allowances – up to a point.

Grant, however, has decided that he has found his mission in life: He is going to run for Seattle City Council, to oust a long-time incumbent named Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer). According to Grant, McIver is part of what’s wrong with Seattle; Grant wants Seattle to expand its monorail system – clean, sustainable mass transit – instead of building a new light-rail system that will tear up and divide neighborhoods.

He feels strongly enough about it to run for office with that as his platform. And he wants Phil to manage his campaign. Phil agrees because, well, he has nothing better to do.

Grant is a serious underdog; there are a number of candidates and Grant has to poll ahead of them to challenge McIver in the general election. Phil begins to have second thoughts when he’s offered another newspaper job – but when Grant actually survives the run-off, Phil can’t walk away.

They begin to attract a student following at the University of Washington, who become a force of volunteers, putting up signs, leafleting and otherwise doing the on-the-ground kind of retail grassroots politics that can make the difference in a small election (or a big one, for that matter). But the visibility and, more importantly, the forum seem to go to Grant’s head a little.

Or, in Justin Rhodes’ screenplay, maybe it’s that Grant’s still play-acting at being a candidate, fancying himself as the noble underdog battling the forces of evil. Just one problem: As entrenched as McIver is, he’s also a liberal, perhaps even a progressive, one who has learned how to get things done and what is and isn’t possible. But he finds himself confronted with a true believer in Grant, who isn’t afraid to hurl invective that may sound romantic and uplifting to his followers, but which isn’t actually true about McIver.

And that’s the most salient idea in “Grassroots”: that, when fantasies turn into reality, well, reality can be a cold slap in the face. (Ask Barack Obama, who still seems to harbor notions of bipartisanship, in a world where his opponents see the world in strict shades of black and white.)

I’ve never been a particular fan of Biggs, who seems at times to be walking through this film. On the other hand, next to the jumping-jack Moore, as Grant, it may be that he just looks inert by comparison.

Moore is hardly leading-man material, but he can play this character all day. He invests him with the kind of entertaining energy that doesn’t disguise Grant’s limited vision, despite his passion for the topic. He’s not a candidate who will actually be able to do the job – but he’s a passionate campaigner because he approaches it as a game in which he’s deadly serious about winning.

Cedric the Entertainer makes a striking counterpoint as a politician who understands the contest and is playing the long game, rather than going for the quick hit. He also captures both the sadness and frustration he feels at being up against an upstart who knows how to push buttons, even if he’s going on instinct rather than cunning.

“Grassroots” is a smarter movie than you expect, one that starts out as one thing and slyly turns into something else. It’s probably naïve, but it’s also enjoyable and even a little thought-provoking.

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