Lawrence Toppman

‘Miss Sloane’ delivers a message wrapped inside a bit of a mess

Jessica Chastain plays a driven, stop-at-nothing lobbyist in “Miss Sloane.”
Jessica Chastain plays a driven, stop-at-nothing lobbyist in “Miss Sloane.”

It’s almost impossible to review “Miss Sloane” after November 8, 2016. It takes place in a world where Congress might conceivably take mild steps toward gun control (more careful background checks), where politicians can be shamed into positive actions, where humanitarian principles are not a joke, where money doesn’t automatically buy access to power, where Washington is not as hopelessly rotten as an apple left in the sun all summer.

One now has to treat it as a fantasy, a Frank Capra-style wish fulfillment about as realistic as “The Nutcracker.” (It even has a Capra-esque speech denouncing Washington corruption at the end.) So as a fairy tale, how is it?

Fair to good.

The portrait of Elizabeth Sloane grabs your interest, partly due to the presence of Jessica Chastain in the title role. She has played driven, everything-for-the-mission characters before, notably in her Oscar-nominated role in “Zero Dark Thirty.” But in this case, the mission is to sell a political idea, not execute Osama Bin Laden.

Her energy flows into behavior we can’t help but find unscrupulous, whether we admire the outcome or not. (She’s trying to convince senators to vote for a modest gun bill.) Even with her icy demeanor and a face made up so heavily that she resembles a porcelain sex doll, she demonstrates old-fashioned movie-star charisma.

Veteran director John Madden (who did the two “Best Original Marigold Hotel” films) and first-time writer Jonathan Perera start out strongly. The two sides line up, with Mark Strong and Gugu Mbatha-Raw among the angels and Michael Stuhlbarg and Sam Waterston among the devils. A senator (played by John Lithgow) and a male escort (Jake Lacy) don’t reveal their loyalties until the end, though the behavior of the escort didn’t ring true.

But the plot twists! Something so preposterous happens that I waited through the rest of the film for a character to explain it was a hoax. (Nope.) The final revelation works in retrospect only if a rather unlikely event takes place earlier. That Capra speech, which would have been suppressed almost at once, seems to go on as long as the Gettysburg Address. However you feel about the Second Amendment, the movie may strike you as unlikely and preachy.

We could also have used more back story for Sloane, who suddenly dedicates herself to a new law after more than a decade of finding ways to skirt old ones. (She’s famous for helping politicians do whatever they like while complying with regulations.) Her amorality and change of heart both spring from something in her past – people keep asking if she knew a victim of gun violence – but she remains an enigma at the heart of her own tale.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

“Miss Sloane”

1/2

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, John Lithgow, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sam Waterston.

Writer-director: John Madden.

Length: 132 minutes.

Rating: R (language and some sexuality).

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