You'd seldom describe a Philip Seymour Hoffman performance as bland. After all, he got to be one of the most distinctive character actors working today by playing unforgettable losers, sleazebags and hotheads. Yet Hoffman seems weirdly inert as the star of The Party's Over, a documentary -- just in time for ‘04! -- about the 2000 presidential campaigns.
The Party's Over is a sequel to 1993's Last Party,which followed Robert Downey Jr. to the 1992 Republican and Democratic conventions. There is, let's face it, something especially scary and subversive about Downey these days, and he could have made mesmerizing work of the task directors Donovan Leitch and Rebecca Chaiklin give Hoffman: expose the Democratic and Republican parties as interchangeable frauds. That was Ralph Nader's agenda in 2000, you'll recall, and it energized many voters. It does not, however, energize Hoffman, who is obviously a smart man but an uninspiring master of ceremonies. Listening to speeches, interviewing celebrities or marching in protest rallies, he always looks a little vacant.
Leitch and Chaiklin clearly take cues from Michael Moore, the maverick documentarian whose acclaimed 2002 film, Bowling for Columbine,examined America's obsession with guns. Leitch and Chaikin take up the topic themselves in sequences that could be Bowling for Columbine outtakes, including a long stretch at a gun show and a glimpse of Charlton Heston being scary at an NRA rally. (Hoffman even looks like Moore, a fact that becomes amusingly clear when the two sit down for an interview.) But Bowling for Columbine is a much more complex and moving film, mostly because Moore has keener show instincts than the Party's Over team. Moore also is a more focused and canny interviewer than Hoffman, who keeps letting his interview subjects get the best of him.
More than anything, Leitch and Chaiklin could learn a lot about pacing from Moore, who does not hesitate to let scenes build slowly. The Party's Over is cut like a Christina Aguilera video, a technique perfectly suited to the film's brief Rage Against the Machine performance, not as well suited to discussions of complex political issues like agribusiness. Truth be told, the frenetic editing of The Party's Over is of a piece with its scattershot rhetorical approach, which takes up lots of issues but doesn't examine them in any particular depth. There's also a sloppiness that registers even in small details, like the stupefying and hilarious typo in a subtitle that identifies Rep. Barney Frank as a Republican.