Film Review: Knife Fight

Smart, brisk political satire, so smoothly done and performed that it overrides certain weaknesses and a climactic sentimental face change.
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Nobody has more plates spinning in the air than BlackBerry-obsessed political advisor Paul Turner (Rob Lowe). In this election year, his clients include Stephen (David Harbour), a heroic war veteran running for California senator, and Larry (Eric McCormack), the smiling-Jack incumbent Kentucky governor. The two men share a liberal bent, camera-friendly good looks, a certain middle-aged white man’s overweening sense of entitlement, and not a whole lot of substance (although infinitely preferable to the Looney Tunes, Tea-sloshing opposition). And, oh yeah, one other thing: matching extramarital affairs, the exposure of which could bring down both of their careers.

Director/co-writer Bill Guttentag has fashioned in Knife Fight a smart, fast-moving, expertly lensed political satire, culled from various real-life occurrences and personalities, that is always engaging and manages to ride swiftly over its own weaknesses, which consist largely of expositional similarities. This might have been more effective had one of the politicos’ scandals been different—say, secret drug addiction—as a certain repetition sets in, what with threatening lawyers and blackmailers and the alternating venal and hapless ladies involved. But, thankfully, there are more than enough juicy lines, canny character observations and overall intelligence to compensate.

Lowe demonstrates definitively here that he is more than just a (still) pretty face, with a bright, nicely underplayed performance—his best, really—earning actual sympathy for his shallowly ambitious character. Harbour is now one of our most solidly reliable actors, while McCormack is also effective in a role that is something of a reprise of the slimy character he played so smoothly in the recent Broadway revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.

A large part of the film’s appeal stems from its not being just a boys’ game, with a gallery of strong female appearances. Carrie-Anne Moss is marvelously affecting as Penelope, a super-idealistic doctor and gubernatorial hopeful whose chances Paul initially scoffs at before he has a change of heart that rather reeks of Capra-corn yet goes down painlessly. Lovely Jamie Chung, as Paul’s hyper-efficient lesbian assistant, Kerstin, registers strongly, at one point nailing a monologue wherein she describes the classic conundrum of an Asian child, trying to lead her own life yet not wanting to disappoint hard-working parents by not becoming a doctor or engineer. Saffron Burrows is also very good as Larry’s wife, who is more than a little tired of her “stand by your man” pose.