OUR BRAND IS CRISIS “Okay... let’s try that scene again, this time with George Clooney.”

DIRECTOR David Gordon Green has had one of the damnedest careers in modern filmmaking, drifting between the gorgeous Terrence Malick-ness of George Washington to the barn-broad goofiness of Pineapple Express with seemingly negative perspiration. The new political semi-satire Our Brand Is Crisis is far from Green's worst movie—this is a world where Your Highness still exists, after all—but it definitely feels like his most impersonal. While the talented cast occasionally gets a screwball, smiling-dagger rhythm going, the narrative's insistence on staying on point certainly could have benefited from some of Green's old "what the hell" wobbliness.

Based on Rachel Boynton's 2005 documentary of the same name, the plot follows a burned-out former political wunderkind (Sandra Bullock) who's brought in to reverse the tailspin of a no-nonsense Bolivian presidential candidate (a nicely bullish Joaquim de Almeida). As she regains her passion for dirty tricks, a newfound sense of thorny morality begins creeping in. Bullock, stepping into a role originally earmarked for producer George Clooney, seems game to explore the more unsavory aspects of her character, but the script labors to find ways to continually let her off the hook. Too often, the top-tier supporting cast (including Anthony Mackie and Scoot McNairy) is reduced to supplying reaction shots of stark disbelief softening into wonder at her antics.

Thankfully, Our Brand Is Crisis does has an ace in the hole in the form of Billy Bob Thornton as a rival fixer pitched somewhere between Satan and an ambulatory gonad. Whenever he and Bullock are trying to underhandedly one-up each other, the movie lurches to unpredictable life. But The Message always comes clanging back in, and that's when the guardrails are visible.