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Maybe we have Frank Capra to thank for the notion that in politics, at least as it plays out in the movies, the little guy is always the good guy. Stephen Gyllenhaal swallows that idea hook, line and sinker in Grassroots, in which an out-of-work Seattle music critic (Joel David Moore) runs for city council without bothering to think the issues through: He assumes he'll automatically change the status quo by donning a polar-bear costume and making an impassioned plea for extending the city's monorail system.
The monorail's chief benefit? "It's beautiful," he asserts, his eyes glowing with passion, and it will look wonderful rising above the city, unlike the light-rail public-transportation system proposed by his opponent, a longtime city council member played by Cedric the Entertainer.
Seattle's monorail is beautiful, and maybe there's a realistic, cost-effective way to expand it in a way that would greatly benefit the city. Maybe, too, an electric light-rail system would be inefficient or costly in ways that aren't immediately obvious. Details, details — but Grassroots, a semi-true account of the 2001 Seattle City Council campaign, can't be bothered with those.
Instead, it attempts to coast on the alleged aw-shucks charm of Moore's character, a version of real-life onetime Seattle political aspirant Grant Cogswell, and the romantic travails of his put-upon campaign manager, unemployed journalist Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs).
Co-written by Gyllenhaal and Justin Rhodes, Grassroots was adapted from Campbell's book Zioncheck for President, and it's clearly designed to champion the theory that anyone who challenges the political machine is automatically on the right track. But the movie bows only in the most perfunctory way toward the reality that Cogswell has no idea what he's talking about and has no concept of how to make civic dreams a reality. It roots for Cogswell to win without ever acknowledging the dangers of his incompetence.
Moore — who played anthropologist Norm Spellman in Avatar — vests Cogswell with a kind of negative charisma; somehow he's supposed to be "of the people" just because he has a funny-looking Adam's apple. Meanwhile, Cedric the Entertainer's Richard McIver has charm to spare, but he cares about the city just as much as Cogswell does.
Cogswell can't back up his charge that McIver's platform is unsound, and he doesn't even try. Instead he hurls insults behind his opponent's back, attacks along the lines of "He's so entangled in his bureaucratic intestines he couldn't even find his own asshole." Thomas Jefferson sure would be proud.
Passion, not practicality, is all that matters in Grassroots, and instead of being bracing, the movie's posturing becomes tiresome. Gyllenhaal — who made a handful of movies in the 1990s (Waterland, Losing Isaiah, Paris Trout) and who has most recently turned his hand toward television shows like The Mentalist and Numb3rs — doesn't quite know what to do with his actors.
Biggs tries valiantly to build a grounded, multidimensional character out of the bland one that's been written for him, and the gifted Lauren Ambrose flails in the thankless role of the disapproving girlfriend. (Never mind that she's the only character in the movie who has some semblance of common sense.)
Another major character, the city of Seattle, looks reasonably beautiful here — the picture was shot by Sean Porter — but Gyllenhaal's interests aren't particularly cinematic: That would be too bourgeois. Grassroots is a movie where bad ideas, because they're the ones championed by the "correct" side, are king. It never acknowledges that sometimes idealism is just another kind of manipulation.