56th BFI London Film Festival Review – Grassroots (2012)

Grassroots, 2012. 

Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal. 
Starring Jason Biggs, Joel David Moore, Lauren Ambrose, Cobie Smulders, Tom Arnold, Christopher McDonald and Cedric the Entertainer.


An unemployed journalist decides to help his eccentric friend run for a seat on the Seattle city council while also trying to keep his relationship with his girlfriend together.

In this age of politicians garnering insults about expenses, philandering and, perhaps more suitable, talking about the 47% and the like, Grassroots comes at a time where it can most capitalise on peoples’ feelings towards mayors, ministers and other misers. It’s colourful, sugar covered sheen ensures our heroes, Phil (Biggs) and Grant (Moore), are the ones to root for. When better to root for two down on their luck oddballs than when politicians everywhere (especially the ones up for election soon in a mostly unknown country across the Atlantic) are under intense scrutiny?

This cynicism disguised as sincerity is confronted as Grant, the oddest oddball you’ll ever meet (he wears a polar bear suit and likes the environment. What a nutter), capitalises on the attacks that take place on September 11th in New York. And that ultimately, perhaps inadvertently, asks the big question, the big question indeed, which is is there a place where a truly earnest politician can win an election when cynical winners such as incumbent Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer) surround them?

This saccharine shine to the movie does make you wonder if everything happened the way they tell it (this is based on a true story, but the Coen Brothers stuck that at the beginning of Fargo so who knows what that’s worth). The nature of the movie isn’t complete candyfloss, however, and marketing it as a comedy is probably the wrong way to go about it. Grassroots is more an upbeat drama, where the characters stick a smile on their faces despite facing unbeatable odds and crushing defeats at different stages.

That’s where the movie works best. The common man, if there is such a thing, rising up and trying his best to at least start a dialogue. The performances work here, with Moore and Biggs having a good chemistry to ensure the buddy aspect works.

Cedric the Entertainer (do I refer to him as just his ‘second name’ in this review? Makes him sound like a cheap Vegas act, or the worst superhero ever thought up and who’d probably be credited to Bob Kane somehow) plays his part very well and somehow gets sympathy for this politician who is seemingly trying his best to make as much for himself before stealing away to his big mansion. He gives the movie it’s most balanced performance and made me fully forget I was watching Cedric the Entertainer, star of Dance Fu and Codename: The Cleaner. Thinking about it, he may be the best thing about the movie.

The main narrative may seem to be that of Grant the politician, but it’s really about Phil. The man behind the scenes, Phil does his best to fight back against a world that perhaps doesn’t want his journalism while also trying to make enough money to support the campaign and keep his girlfriend from leaving him. It’s a story about love that isn’t as cliché as that actually sounds.

Unfortunately, there are some plot strands that fall by the wayside. Christopher McDonald plays a journalist, creating potential for a story that goes absolutely nowhere. Phil’s encounter with another potential love interest is well done, however, and their story (which could lead somewhere or not, I’m not gonna spoil) is suitably played out to the point it seems the most realistic aspect of the entire movie.

The direction is a good, solid effort from Stephen Gyllenhaal, but is nothing revelatory. It’s not showing off, it presents the story well enough with nothing troubling, but like the visuals overall might seem a tad familiar. Like the movie, the visuals aren’t anything special but are more than good enough to pass.

A true story too sugary to be true, but with enough cynicism to pass in this day and age, Grassroots has well made puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit together as well as they should. All the different narratives, however big or small in comparison to each other, work well enough on the whole, but there’s a feeling of the movie being made up of decidedly different pieces. It’s a little too measured out, with different ingredients (to stretch different metaphors out poorly like a… badly made pizza dough. Come on, it’s the Internet, gimme a break), making the film enjoyable but ultimately a bit too forgettable.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ 

Matt Smith

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