Film Review: Grassroots

Tale of a Seattle race for city council is strident and ultimately tiresome.

In soggy, caffeine-drenched, strenuously p.c. 2001 Seattle, Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore), a scruffy loose cannon of a freelance music critic, decides to run for city council on a single-issue platform of promoting the city’s quaint little monorail into a viable transportation system, instead of the proposed massive light rail which he sees as an urban destroyer. He enlists the campaign-managing aid of his fellow journalist buddy, Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs), in taking on the incumbent candidate (Cedric the Entertainer), who has the distinct advantage—this being Seattle—of being the only black, highly respected council member.

With Grassroots, director/co-writer Stephen Gyllenhaal aims to make a modern update of those impassioned old Frank Capra movies where the little guys politically take on the dubious Establishment. In our post-9/11, present-day Occupy Wall Street world, there is more of a need for such films than ever, but this one, although initially promising, proves much too random and diffuse. The main problem is the character of Cogswell, who, after an initially inspiring rant extolling the beauty of the original monorail conceived for the Seattle World’s Fair, follows it with other ravings which prove incessant and increasingly less effective. “It’s grassroots, people! Grassroots, in all its glorious, wild, fucking bloom!” he screams. And then, “They’re taking our blood, the blood of the fucking innocents!” to the accompaniment of appropriate “Woos!” from the ragtag assemblage of supporters he amasses in—where else?—his favorite coffee hangout. There are also trenchant observations about his opponent like “He’s so entangled in his own bureaucratic intestines, he can’t even find his own asshole!”

The guy is so obnoxious that you wonder who could ever be inspired to follow him, which puts you at a further remove from his supporters, despite the attractiveness of their cause. And then 9/11 hits and we see them all stunned in front of the TV, with the requisite tearful breakdowns eliciting yet another (excruciating) heartfelt speech from Cogswell that nearly kills the film dead.

Biggs once again proves that, divested of any kind of franchised, home-baked sensual accessory, he’s just bland in a way to make you even yearn for Jason Schwartzman. (He was a complete paper doll when he tried to play The Graduate on Broadway.) Lauren Ambrose is wasted in the role of his girlfriend, understandably upset by the invasion of all those earnest, T-shirted politicos into her home. The film’s major asset is the performance of Cedric the Entertainer, who again proves his versatility with a thoughtfully considered, intelligent portrayal that absolutely wins my vote, whatever those young world-changers are up to.