Movie Review: ‘Knife Fight,’ With Rob Lowe and Carrie-Anne Moss

January 25th, 2013

“To win in politics, you have got to be the person who is willing to bring a gun to a knife fight,” declares Paul (Rob Lowe), a high-powered election strategist in Bill Guttentag’s clumsy political satire, “Knife Fight.” Paul, who relishes being called “the master of disaster,” specializes in managing his clients’ sexual peccadilloes. “Outsize talent” coincides with “outsize weakness,” he explains ruefully. He insists that he will work only for winners, but a tiny grain of idealism remains deep in his heart, along with a sense of shame.

The 2012 election cycle having passed, “Knife Fight” arrives at exactly the wrong moment, as the body politic is heaving a sigh of relief at not being blanketed by attack ads. Who knows why it is being released now?

The film, whose screenplay was written by Mr. Guttentag, based on a story he developed with Chris Lehane, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton and a press secretary for Vice President Al Gore, lacks the seriousness and subtlety of a movie like “The Ides of March.” It is much closer in spirit to the political soap opera “Scandal.” At least that preposterous but addictive entertainment, in which Kerry Washington plays an inside-the-Beltway crisis manager who has an affair with the president, is juicy, trashy fun. Not only are its characters outrageously corrupt, but it also has a great performance by Kate Burton as the power-hungry vice president to Tony Goldwyn’s president.

There is no such vitality and very little humor to be found in “Knife Fight,” which bills itself as a comedy. It is also unabashedly partisan without really saying so: Paul’s clients are liberal Democrats caught with their pants down. In the film’s scheme of things, however, these flawed peacocks are far preferable to the lunatic opposition.

The biggest cheater, Larry (Eric McCormack), is the smooth, philandering governor of Kentucky, who resembles John Edwards. The most virtuous is a California senator (David Harbour), whose minor slip with a masseuse is spun by his opponents into a major brouhaha. The movie’s heroine, Penelope (Carrie-Anne Moss), is a California candidate for governor and a single mother who runs a free clinic in San Francisco. A piece of chicanery that neither she nor Paul is aware of turns her into an overnight political star.

The tone of “Knife Fight” is mean until the movie flips a switch and turns pious and mawkish as Paul tries to make amends for past sins. Whether playing it sleazy or noble, Mr. Lowe brings little emotional weight to his role.

You are left with a sense that Mr. Guttentag and Mr. Lehane became carried away, while creating “Knife Fight,” with the fussy details of polling and manipulating the social media, the blogosphere and television reporters. They forgot to convey a coherent insider’s vision of a world they love to hate.

Knife Fight

Opens on Friday in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Bill Guttentag, based on a story by Mr. Guttentag and Chris Lehane; director of photography, Stephen Kazmierski; edited by Robert Dalva; production design by Michael Goldman; produced by Guerrino De Luca, Catherine Davila and Daniel Davila; released by IFC Films. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Rob Lowe (Paul Turner), Julie Bowen (Peaches), Saffron Burrows (Mrs. Becker), Jamie Chung (Kerstin), David Harbour (Stephen), Eric McCormack (Larry), Jennifer Morrison (Angela), Carrie-Anne Moss (Penelope) and Richard Schiff (Dimitris).

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