David Gordon Green's Our Brand Is Crisis is a horror film wrapped in a fast-talking political comedy. Watching Sandra Bullock, as ruthless campaign manager Jane, flog her uncharismatic candidate for Bolivia's president, I snickered at her knowing quips. Asked by an offscreen TV interviewer (the film's awkward framing device) to name her inspiration, Jane jokes, “When I started in this business, my heroes were politicians and leaders. Then I met them.” But then the film ends and the laughter fades. A chill sets in. For two hours, we've liked Bullock and her team — cheered their successes, even. Yet they are the world's boogeymen. And the nightmare is real.

Jane's character is inspired by real-life wonk James Carville, a hero to some, who as a partner in the strategist firm Greenberg Carville Shrum flew to Bolivia in 2002 to elect Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada over his progressive opposition, Evo Morales. (That story was told in Rachel Boynton's 2005 doc of the same name — Green and screenwriter Peter Straughan have made their version un–sue-ably fictionalish.)

If it's surprising that Carville, the grinning grandpa of American liberals, would fly south of the equator to sell a man who represents everything he shuns at home, that's the point. Jane cares nothing about the platform of Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), her candidate. Like a defense attorney, there are evils she'd rather not hear. She's in La Paz for two reasons: the paycheck, and the chance to defeat rival election genius Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), already there and gloating over his man's 28-point lead in the polls.

Thornton's Pat is a Carville clone. He's all skull and jaw and deep-fried accent, which he employs in foul attempts to rattle Jane's composure. Cozying next to her at a debate, he whispers, “When I get home, I'm going to spend hours pleasuring myself thinking of you.” Jane wouldn't ever cry sexual harassment; she sees herself as a sexless warrior. Her every other line quotes Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Muhammad Ali and, er, Warren Beatty. The film's strongest impression is of her and Pat's furtive tribe of traveling ronin — mercenaries, really — who cross the globe looking for a fight. Bolivia matters today, but tomorrow it's off to Israel. As for the Bolivians, they don't matter at all.

Green also has a weakness for seeing the locals as a gullible herd prone to throwing rocks, doting over llamas and undermining their own political credibility by surprising candidates on talk shows with dancing bears. Occasionally Green missteps, but he's trying to show us the Bolivians as Jane's team sees them — fools. As Scoot McNairy, one of her co-strategists along with Anthony Mackie and Ann Dowd, groans of the country's many rural voters, winning them over will be as if a U.S. candidate had to sway 200 million Apaches.

A few rise above the rabble: Young intern Eddie (Reynaldo Pacheco) and his eye-rolling, heavy-drinking apolitical friends; a countryside academic who demands Castillo decry the IMF; a man at a focus group who groans at their latest campaign commercial of a sobbing Bolivian child. And there's de Almeida's Castillo — a performance worthy of a supporting-actor campaign — whose prim pride is jackhammered away as Jane rebrands him as a pit bull. “Roll up your sleeves!” she commands, and an aide scurries to roll them up for him.

Green also spins the camera around to show what the Bolivians make of these Yankees: bossy, patronizing giants who can't even be bothered to learn Spanish. After an impassioned Big Movie Speech to two dozen volunteers, Jane asks how many people understood her English. A few raise their hands. “Translate,” she shrugs, and clomps away. The role needs Bullock, America's switchblade sweetheart, to succeed, and she gives it all of her sharp ambition and sympathetic brown eyes. She can't quite make Jane human — the script doesn't give her enough for that — but she shows us the physical cost for her, too, as the teetotaling ex–rehab patient begins inhaling booze and cigarettes. (I could do without the destroy-the-witch gag where Jane falls down a flight of stairs, and later wheels an oxygen tank around like an invalid.)

Our Brand Is Crisis is so cynical that even the likable scenes turn loathsome. No one in the theater will clutch their pearls to learn elections are dirty, and Green will, ironically, have a near-impossible time battling the audience's own cynicism toward such revelations. Perhaps the most cynical thing about our cynicism is how much we abhor watching it. “We know, we know,” we groan, buying a ticket to something dumber, even as the crisis festers.

Yet put aside that resistance and this brisk, brittle comedy burns with ideas it needs us to witness: that Americans are still upending countries just as the anti-communist CIA did last century and that, even worse, we don't even do it for a political point. Say what you will about our elections, but at least our operatives have to live where they work. Just as chilling is Jane's brainstorm that the Bolivians' protest for a liberal candidate can be used to destroy that liberal candidate's campaign. Protest means chaos, she argues. And in times of chaos, conservative strongmen win.

How, then, can anyone, anywhere, combat these boogeymen? Only by fighting their apathetic image of us — which takes arming ourselves with facts, passion and hope.

OUR BRAND IS CRISIS | Directed by David Gordon Green | Written by Peter Straughan, based on the documentary by Rachel Boynton | Warner Bros. | Citywide

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