Jessica Chastain has channeled the power of Jude. She can take a bad movie and make it better.
Case in point: “Miss Sloane,” a certifiably mediocre movie that becomes intermittently watchable thanks to Chastain, who is on screen, nonstop, for 132 minutes.
Jessica Chastain, 39, is the best actress alive not yet to have won an Oscar -- twice nominated, not yet decorated. This year won’t end the drought, but it won’t be long.
Like so many fine actresses, she’s a shape-shifting chameleon who dissolves into her roles. Her performances are inside-out -- starting with the soul and working her way to hand gestures.
In “Miss Sloane,” Chastain plays powerful Washington DC lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane who is revered and feared for her ability to influence congress on behalf of almost any cause.
The story begins with a wealthy Second Amendment advocate asking her to persuade women that carrying guns will make them safer. Sloane laughs at the pitch, telling the NRA salesman that women are too smart to fall for such nonsense.
Shortly afterwards, she’s approached by a small lobbying group on the other side of the battle -- trying to pass a bill to restrict access to guns. The idea taking on the NRA appeals to her -- she relishes impossible challenges.
At this point, the movie is virtually unwatchable, dead in the water. The script is playing out like a heavy-handed political sermon at a time when we’re sick of politics. The left coast and the alt-right would both be annoyed at this point in the story.
To keep us awake, Sloane hires a gigolo for some fast hot sex. Do not buy a ticket hoping for titillation --- the sex scenes are edited for boredom.
Fortunately, the story takes a turn that wakes us up.
We slowly learn that Sloane doesn’t have a conscience. She’s really not a lady with a cause, but rather a Machiavellian hired gun -- in this case a hired anti-gun, but she really doesn’t care. Hire her and she’s yours for the night or for the fight.
Sloane begins weaving a strategy where any means justifies her end. One reviewer aptly noted she’s coldly insensitive to collateral damage as long as she blows up the target. At one point, Sloane tearfully confesses she “doesn’t know where the line is.”
Methinks the lady cannot be trusted.
Sloane is the cynic’s heroine: proof that DC is run by amoral lobbyists who live in high-priced high-rises.
When we figure out the political message is irrelevant, we begin focusing on Chastain and how she manipulates everybody as she plays a game of Capitol Hill chess. She loves to sacrifice pieces -- often people, sometimes friends -- that make her opponents celebrate too early.
Much too late opponents discover that sacrificing a friend was a coup designed to trap them.
The brilliant Sloane is always a dozen moves ahead of her overconfident, less intuitive, opposition.
We soon learn nothing is what it appears to be, and that her demise is always an illusion.
Chastain’s strong performance is matched by that of Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Esme, another conquer-the-world female -- but one with a conscience. They begin as partners until Sloane crosses a line, leaving the principled Esme behind.
The ending is an amusing gimmick where Sloane gives up her queen on the way to victory.
This role could have been played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who also specialized in bringing alive cynical characters like CIA operative Gust Avrakotos in “Charlie Wilson’s War.”
But there’s a beauty in having the scheming power broker be female.
Chastain shatters the glass ceiling by proving that women, too, can be selfish manipulative pilots flying their planes into the mountainside --– and somehow parachuting to safety next to DB Cooper.
Reminder: This is a bad movie only partially salvaged by Chastain. Don’t set your sights too high. But watching Pacino in bad movies is fun. So too, we can enjoy Chastain’s performance while questioning her choice of scripts.