'Sloane' on the uptake

Silly lobbyist drama has a powerhouse in Chastain

It's a bill! It's a law! No, it's Super-Lobbyist! These are the phrases conjured by "Miss Sloane," starring Jessica Chastain as a spike-heeled warrior who's both off-puttingly ruthless and "a conviction lobbyist" -- that is, a lobbyist who is more about the issue than the money. Whether in conference rooms or congressional hearing chambers, Elizabeth Sloane choke holds everyone she meets to her own standard of professional ethics, and at every step, that standard gets second-guessed by colleagues, acquaintances, and the moviegoing public.

In short, Sloane is a powerhouse, and Chastain renders her so with a powerhouse performance of tongue-lashings, steely glares and unromantic sexuality. The debut screenplay by Jonathan Perera isn't quite so imposing. With Sloane announcing at the outset that "Lobbying is about foresight," about the long game and seeing at least "one step ahead," we're primed for a rug-pulling, day-saving twist when matters look bleakest.

The anything-goes power-plays may say "House of Cards," but in its structure, its dialogue, and even its casting, "Miss Sloane" heavy-handedly evokes Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing" (the Washington, D.C., setting and wonky sausage making) and his more recent "The Newsroom" (hot-button issues and shared cast members Sam Waterston and Alison Pill). Here, the issue of the week is gun control, a MacGuffin to serve the film's character portrait of Sloane. Or is the character portrait of Sloane a MacGuffin to conceal a procedural about masterful politicking? And two hours into it all, will anyone care?

At the film's outset, Sloane works for the high-powered consulting firm of Cole, Kravitz, & Waterman, but when her boss (Waterston) presses her to spin "guns as tools of female empowerment," Sloane balks at the idea of being a "gold medalist in ethical limbo." And so, she pulls a "Jerry Maguire" and jumps ship to a boutique firm called Peterson Wyatt to work the other side of the gun-control issue. As the stakes intensify, Perera fills the film with florid characterizations of the lobbying profession, such as Sloane being "the poster child for the most morally bankrupt profession since faith healing" or identifying "James Bond sh*t" as par for the lobbying course.

But director John Madden ("The Debt") can't spin the film's overstatement into a serious-minded consideration of the lobbying profession. Sloane is too much of an outlier for that. She's a professional genius who pops pills to compensate for insomnia and frequents male prostitutes (notably, Jake Lacy's Forde) to attend to her pesky sexual needs. "I never know where the line is," she muses, which would seem to explain why she would throw Gugu Mbatha-Raw's yet more sincere conviction lobbyist Esme -- whose personal life was touched by gun tragedy -- unwillingly into the limelight in order to win votes for a gun-control bill ("You crossed the line," says Esme, "when you stopped treating people with respect").

It's all building to an only-in-the-movies twist that divorces "Miss Sloane" from a truly thoughtful and credible treatment of the unpleasant realities of Washington lobbying; instead, we get a hothouse melodrama that teases an ice queen's meltdown while actually doing the hustle.

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