Yet another entry in the canon of pandering pablum that audiences can expect in a presidential election year, Grace Lee’s Janeane from Des Moines would be an intriguing depiction of personal and political disillusionment if its conceit wasn’t so transparent and lopsided. Going half-Borat, the very committed Jane Edith Wilson (who plays the titular Iowan, and serves as co-writer) and Lee attempt to meld documentary and narrative techniques by telling the story of a fictionalized Tea Party-sympathizing Christian conservative determined to find the correct (or, well, “right”) Republican candidate for her and her family. Janeane attends actual town-hall meetings and campaign events and asks “real questions” with disarming directness, posited by the filmmakers to reveal the falseness of real-life politicians’ false promises and the triteness of their soundbites.
Janeane from Des Moines is bookended by the Iowa straw poll and caucus, between which Janeane jumps from candidate to candidate as her life accumulates more and more problems (conveniently, all related to the major talking points in the election: lack of healthcare, unemployment, house foreclosure, Planned Parenthood, traditional marriage); from August to January, she devolves from a strong-willed Bible-group attendee into a blubbering and disenchanted Meryl Streep-in-Doubt-esque mess. The mockumentary style serves to convince the audience of Janeane’s authenticity, and not just fool the Republican candidates; however, the device is undermined by the extremity of her downward spiral and the wink-and-nudge in-joke of her immersion into real-life events.
Occasionally succumbing to a cheap blooper reel of Republican gaffes (the booing of a gay soldier at a debate, Romney’s “Corporations are people, my friend” comment, Rick “Oops” Perry not being able to name the third agency of government, and Herman Cain’s Pokémon quoting), the film never strikes an effective rhetorical balance between Janeane’s minor face time with the visiting candidates and the plodding, clumsy scenes in which she interacts with mere topical ciphers masquerading as her family, co-workers, bible group, and former friends.
The most potent idea Lee and Wilson confront is the concept of performance. When Janeane sits down with Michele Bachmann over a cup of coffee, Janeane elaborates on her health-care quagmire and Bachmann sympathetically placates her with platitudes, leaving you to wonder: Who’s the better actor? In the post-Palin world of media-driven politics, this isn’t the most incisive observation, but it helps that Lee and Wilson resist the urge to make this idea, unlike the other trotted-about themes, as heavy as a stick of deep-fried butter at the Iowa State Fair—which does, predictably and sarcastically, make an appearance.
Janeane from Des Moines betrays its own fictions by overloading on cheap worst-case-scenario mythology, turning Janeane into a jilted (gay husband, duh), unemployed, and cancer-ridden frump, exchanging a reasonably plausible portrait for cruel, overbearing didacticism. Just as the candidates should be, and are, criticized for their inhuman, platform-centric scripts, the film’s own humanity and humility vanishes as Janeane becomes less like a representation of a real person and more like a straw-man stump speech.