John Madden’s Miss Sloane reminded me of a bad John Grisham novel. Which may mistakenly suggest that there are good John Grisham novels. Though if one were to ascribe a kind of Grisham-curve onto Miss Sloane, where Grisham’s grishamness is ascribed some metric of virtue, than Madden’s film would still fall considerably short of any threshold of quality. Miss Sloane is just a poor film, through and through. It’s a deathly self-serious yet utterly preposterous film that probably would’ve garnered a couple of Oscar nominations back in the 90s. We liked Grisham back in the early 90s, right? Boy, am I glad those days are behind us.
Jessica Chastain plays the eponymous character, an icy Washington lobbyist who spends the majority of the film trying to get a contentious gun law passed. She’s not so much a character as she is a sound byte; a garrulous geyser that dispels insipid speeches meant to inspire her cadre of lowly, fresh-out-of-college researchers. Coming from first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera, Miss Sloane amasses its grievances through its rapid deployment of clichés and grade school pedagogic. This is a film where characters announce such trite expressions like “you’ve blown this whole thing wide open” and “the only thing you’re missing is a dick”, as if stumbling across bits of vital wisdom.
And then there’s the film’s structurally dubious design, all meant to generate quote unquote suspense for its aggressively stupid finale. Pivoting around a congressional hearing, Madden and Perera piece together a narrative utilizing the spectators at the trial. Despite it’s hyperactive and purely synthetic world, Miss Sloane mirrors a reality that can be believed in; it’s ridiculous and theatrical but possible. That’s until its conclusion, which requires such a quantum leap in logic, an orchestration so inane and absurd that whatever goodwill the film has generated to this point was for naught.
I understand the urge to cast Jessica Chastain as a relentless physical force. Her performances in Zero Dark Thirty and A Most Violent Year have allowed her to expend the more warm imagery so often associated with her in films like The Tree of Life and Take Shelter. But her grittier roles all inspired some degree of empathy as well. When her integrity is under assault in something like Zero Dark Thirty, it comes across as an attack that leaves a mark. Whether it’s Madden’s misguided tone or Perera’s vapid screenplay (or both), Chastain is left with a threadbare character that behaves like an automaton’s vision of an automaton. I’ve admired her performances, and she indeed works exceedingly well with confident direction, but her performance tends to breathe when her director is of a more inspired skill set (Bigelow, Malick, and Nichols) and falters otherwise (Hillcoat, Taylor, and now Madden).
What’s so (unintentionally) striking about Miss Sloane is how it attempts to tap into the zeitgeist yet fails so miserably at saying anything especially interesting about the world we live in. It’s ending, beyond its theatrical absurdity, didactically espouses the need for structural revision, scolding the swamp of politicians that bend at the will of lobbyists. Yet so what? A similar-minded film like Sidney Lumet’s Power, dealing with the crooked campaign managers, was past its expiration date in 1986; Miss Sloane’s flashy yet witless repartee suggests profundity yet exposes nothing.