For truly savvy D.C. drama, watch ''The West Wing,'' says Bruce Fretts

By Bruce Fretts
Updated October 18, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Contender

  • Movie

”The Contender” doesn’t have a clue about politics

This is what happens when you let a critic write and direct a movie. By all rational standards, ”The Contender,” the ludicrous new political drama from former KABC Los Angeles film reviewer Rod Lurie, should’ve gone straight to Showtime. Inexplicably, DreamWorks acquired this independently produced turkey for theatrical distribution. Perhaps they thought it would seem timely in this election year and hoped to duplicate the success of NBC’s ”The West Wing.” Yet ”The Contender” can’t begin to keep up with the Emmy winning drama. Heck, the Bush – Gore debates packed more entertainment value than this stinker.

In their great wisdom, the American people smelled this one coming from a mile away. Despite surprisingly kind reviews, ”The Contender” opened with a noncompetitive $5.4 million — although the film was so cheaply made that it’ll still probably turn a profit. How did Lurie attract such an A minus list cast (Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges) for such a grade Z movie? Well, he reportedly sucked up to Allen at an L.A. film critics dinner when he was presenting her an award for ”Pleasantville.” Oldman signed on as a producer of the movie, although now he’s distancing himself from it due to its alleged liberal slant. (Ironically, Oldman’s stunt performance as a right wing congressman is the film’s sole highlight.) As for Bridges, he’s a good actor, but his middle name might as well be ”Box Office Poison.”

What’s so bad about ”The Contender?” Let’s begin with three unlikely words: Congressman Christian Slater. I suppose it’s possible that some district could elect such an unstatesmanlike figure — after all, Sonny Bono and Fred ”Gopher” Grandy were representatives. But Slater is so unconvincing as a 28 year old Delaware Democrat who somehow persuades Oldman’s Grand Old Poobah to add him to the esteemed Judiciary Committee that he nearly sinks the movie singlehandedly.

Slater isn’t the film’s only subpar performer. Allen has proven herself a fine character actress in such films as ”Nixon” and ”The Ice Storm,” but in her first leading role, she fades into the background when she should be taking center stage. The film practically begs the audience to root for her character as she battles to win confirmation as the nation’s first female Vice President, yet she offers not a hint of charisma — a key quality for politicians and movie stars alike. At least Bridges makes a more credible prez than weaselly Kevin Pollak (”The Usual Suspects”), who played the Commander in Chief in Lurie’s only previous movie, the barely released nuclear bomb ”Deterrence.”

What really kills ”The Contender” is Lurie’s naïveté about the way things work in Washington (which is odd, since his father was an award winning political cartoonist). The screenplay asks us to believe that the Chief Executive would wait three weeks to replace the deceased Vice President, then hastily choose a female candidate without checking into her background. Soon, everyone is shocked to learn that her husband was her former Senatorial campaign manager, a then married man with whom she had an affair. Somehow, I think that would’ve made the papers. Plus, Allen’s character blithely mentions that she’s both a vegetarian and an atheist — two factors that would probably count against her more than her sexual indiscretions in this meat eating, God fearing, post Clinton/ Lewinsky society. So if it’s political thrills you’re looking for, save your money, stay home, and watch ”The West Wing.” Oh, and don’t forget to vote on Nov. 7 — that’s free, too.

Episode Recaps

The Contender

  • Movie
  • R
  • 126 minutes
  • Rod Lurie