'Grassroots': Power to the people behind comedy set in Seattle
A movie review of "Grassroots," Stephen Gyllenhaal's political comedy that follows a journalist (Jason Biggs) who becomes the campaign manager of monorail enthusiast and Seattle City Council candidate Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore) in 2001. The film is set just a few weeks before the 9/11 attacks.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Grassroots,' with Jason Biggs, Joel David Moore, Lauren Ambrose, Cedric the Entertainer, Tom Arnold. Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal, from a screenplay by Gyllenhaal and Justin Rhodes, based on a book by Phil Campbell. 97 minutes. Rated R for pervasive language and drug use. Harvard Exit. Gyllenhaal will attend screenings Friday through Sunday.
If you live outside Seattle, you may see "Grassroots" as a witty, well-cast, sometimes ingeniously paced political comedy.
If you live here, however, there's more of a bittersweet quality to the picture, which chronicles how we almost extended the monorail into a mass-transit system that might actually work.
If you fail to buy that as a possibility/goal, this is probably not the film for you. But it's still an honorable attempt to make the workings of City Hall and small-scale democracy into an intelligent entertainment that happens to be set in 2001 — just a few weeks before the 9/11 attacks.
"Most of this is true," the filmmakers inform us early on. The script is a streamlined adaptation of Phil Campbell's autobiographical 2005 book, "Zioncheck for President: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics." Campbell has a credit as a co-producer; he's also involved in promoting the film.
The director and co-writer, Stephen Gyllenhaal (father of Jake and Maggie), quickly establishes his street cred by plunging us into the world of alternative newspapers and the mostly young idealists and reporters who sometimes make the leap from journalism to running for office. (In some ways, "Grassroots" suggests a prequel to "Portlandia.")
Phil, nicely played by Jason Biggs in a potentially career-altering performance, is a Stranger writer who has just been fired from the paper. His girlfriend, Emily (Lauren Ambrose), sympathizes, but she can go only so far in sharing his latest obsession: becoming the campaign manager of monorail enthusiast and Seattle City Council candidate Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore).
Grant has a habit of stirring audiences by comparing the incumbent, Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer), to the devil. Moore skillfully turns him into a benevolent demagogue, with a special gift for delivering anti-freeway rants.
The movie eventually becomes a plea for civility and bipartisanship, though the characters are never just slogan-spouters. Something's really at stake in the scenes between Emily and Phil, whose relationship may not survive this test, and between Grant and Phil, who are thrown by an FBI investigation and the terrorist attacks.
Gyllenhaal is especially good at capturing the fear and terror of these scenes, which plunge the would-be politicians into an entirely credible inability to comprehend what has just happened.
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org