ADAM GRAHAM

Review: Chastain is fierce, but ‘Miss Sloane’ is minor

Jessica Chastain gives one of the year’s best performances in a film that can’t quite keep up with her

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
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Jessica Chastain is ferocious in “Miss Sloane.” Too bad the movie can’t keep pace with her.

It’s a major performance in a minor movie. Chastain is Elizabeth Sloane, an ultra high-powered lobbyist at the top of the food chain in Washington, D.C. She’s a pill-popping, backstabbing opportunist who will do anything to get ahead and who doesn’t have time for relationships or even sleep. She knows only work and success and winning at all costs, which makes her the embodiment of the D.C. machine.

As Sloane, Chastain is fierce and driven, but the movie can’t sustain the weight of her mighty performance. What starts out as a smart, sophisticated D.C. morality play winds up as a primetime soap opera with twists worthy of Shonda Rhimes. That doesn’t make the movie any less entertaining — Shonda Rhimes shows are fun! — but it separates it from the slate of award-worthy films currently populating the multiplex.

“Miss Sloane” throws viewers into Sloane’s world of fast talk and power players; the dialogue (the script is by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera) has that familiar Aaron Sorkin-style rat-a-tat zip. At her firm, headed up by George Dupont (Sam Waterston), Sloane is pitched the task of making guns warm and cuddly to women; so offended is she at the notion that she leaves her firm, bringing most of her team with her (including Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Esme Manucharian), and links up with a nonprofit (led by Mark Strong’s Rodolfo Schmidt) to help push through a gun control bill.

Much of “Miss Sloane” is dedicated to the legwork of rounding up votes, a peek at D.C. politics at play. We also see Sloane’s tactics at work, and not even members of her own team are safe from her cutthroat manipulation.

This is where the film starts to buckle. Jake Lacy is introduced as a male prostitute who Sloane begins to regularly see (her usual guy couldn’t make it, we’re told), and it doesn’t make sense that someone as fiercely controlling as Sloane would allow such a potential liability into her life without at least a heavy vetting.

The Jake Lacy character is a problem, and other story elements begin to pile up as “Miss Sloane” gets dumbed down with silly revelations and plot mechanics that don’t hold water. As “Miss Sloane” should be ramping up toward its finish, its wheels begin to fall off, undermining the great performance at its center.

But Chastain manages to keep the train on the track. “Miss Sloane” is book-ended by scenes of Sloane on trial for her wrongdoings, and she’s far from a saint. She lives by a code that supersedes the rules that govern her job, and she makes for an interesting, complicated character, bending traditional notions of “likability.” We don’t need to like her, but Chastain makes us understand and even sympathize with her, ruthless and cunning though she may be. It’s remarkable work.

Director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) does a slick and efficient job of creating a drama that plays like a TV show, ludicrous cliffhangers and all. Chastain won’t win an Oscar, but order up 12 episodes and she might take home an Emmy.

agraham@detroitnews.com

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@grahamorama

‘Miss Sloane’

GRADE: B

Rated R for language and some sexuality

Running time: 132 minutes

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