“Grassroots” is a true David and Goliath story, in which a naïve, one-issue candidate for Seattle City Council goes up against a solidly entrenched incumbent. The movie, directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal (father of Jake and Maggie), feels more like a countercultural comedy than a sober civics lesson. Although it only glosses the mechanics of local politics, it exudes an endearingly scruffy charm.
The hotheaded spoiler, Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore), is an eccentric freelance music critic who likes to waddle around the city dressed as a polar bear. His opponent in the council election, Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer), is one of the few African-American politicians to hold office in Seattle. This bothers Grant’s equality-minded liberal supporters, but Grant remains undaunted. In the early days of the campaign Grant casually refers to his rival as “the Devil” during a debate, but Mr. McIver is portrayed as a polished, courtly blank slate who calmly remains above the fray.
The issue that obsesses Grant is a monorail, which he insists would solve many of the area’s transportation and social problems if it were extended throughout Seattle. Richard repeatedly sidesteps Grant’s repeated accusations that he is in the pocket of developers.
Jason Biggs, in a strong, steady performance, plays Grant’s inexperienced campaign manager, Phil Campbell, who takes the job after being fired from the alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger. The screenplay, by Justin Rhodes and Mr. Gyllenhaal, was adapted from Mr. Campbell’s book, “Zioncheck for President: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics.”
Phil’s equanimity is shaken to the foundation when his live-in girlfriend, Emily (Lauren Ambrose), moves out of the house they share with two others after the place becomes a crash pad for campaign volunteers. In her small but critical role, Ms. Ambrose delivers one of her typically deep, nuanced performances.
Because the story takes place in 2001, the events of that September throw a monkey wrench into the movie, which stops dead in its tracks as images of the collapsing World Trade Center towers are flashed on television, and stunned campaign workers fall apart weeping. But “Grassroots” sputters to life again as the race tightens.
How accurate is the movie? A recent YouTube video of the real Grant Cogswell suggests that Mr. Moore’s caricature bears little resemblance to the actual candidate, who comments on their differences. Tall and stringy with an early Beatles haircut and a goofy expression on his face, the gangly fictional Grant suggests a more extreme version of Adam Driver in the HBO series “Girls.”
In the movie, as Grant’s popularity grows, he tones down his ranting, hysterical style of public address, but he never completely sheds the aura of a fanatical, hyper-emotional geek who could go haywire at any second. It’s hard to imagine that the character as portrayed in the film could have gotten to first base in any political campaign.
Oddly, “Grassroots” feels contemporary. Its events may have happened more than a decade ago, but this pungent gust of do-it-yourself combativeness is presented as a prelude to the Occupy movement.
“Grassroots” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has strong language and drug use.
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal; written by Justin Rhodes and Mr. Gyllenhaal, based on the book “Zioncheck for President: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics,” by Phil Campbell; director of photography, Sean Porter; edited by Neil Mandelberg; music by Nick Urata; production design by Laurie Hicks; costumes by Ron Leamon; produced by Peggy Case, Brent Stiefel, Matthew R. Brady, Michael Huffington and Peggy Rajski; released by Samuel Goldwyn Films. At the Village East, Second Avenue at 12th Street, East Village. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.
WITH: Jason Biggs (Phil Campbell), Joel David Moore (Grant Cogswell), Lauren Ambrose (Emily Bowen), Cobie Smulders (Clair), Tom Arnold (Tommy), Todd Stashwick (Nick Ricochet), Emily Bergl (Theresa Glendon), D C Pierson (Wayne), Christopher McDonald (Jim Tripp) and Cedric the Entertainer (Richard McIver).