Contributing to the cinematic pantheon of pandering fables about political disillusionment, Knife Fight believes itself to be a shrewd “insider” send-up of political spin and yet is armed with the fetid wit and visual sophistication of the bad political advertisements it occasionally lampoons. Wavering between cynicism and schmaltz, writer-director Bill Guttentag presents an inept spoof on the election process for audiences who mistake fast talking for sharpness and have never considered the potential speciousness of campaigns.
Heading the scattered ensemble of wry smirks and shit-eating grins is Rob Lowe as Paul, a tenacious, Blackberry-clicking campaign advisor overseeing the national reelection bids of two white, middle-aged men who are better at delivering monologues than making any cultural or political impact. Paul, however, justifies his job and hard work by finding unparalleled satisfaction when one of his candidates wins, explaining that he’s fighting for the overall victory of getting the “good buy” into office.
Paul counts his clients as his pals, though they may as well be nameless considering they’re merely nebulous shadows with nice hair and suits: a slimy California senator and army vet, Stephen (David Harbour), and an even slimier Kentucky governor, Larry (Eric McCormack). Both, unsurprisingly, have been accused of having extramarital affairs—one with a hooker turned masseuse and the other with a vulnerable, goody-two-shoes intern. There’s also a potential client of Paul’s: the optimistic doctor-cum-California gubernatorial hopeful Penelope (Carrie-Anne Moss), who runs a government-underfunded clinic, but, as Paul states (and which Lowe delivers through a meaner interpretation of his Parks and Recreation character’s propensity to obnoxiously overemphasize his eve-ry syllable), she doesn’t stand a chance. Along for the proceedings is trusty, über-able assistant, Kerstin (Jamie Chung), who’s working with Paul in the time between graduation and medical school. She’s set up as the audience surrogate and is given the thorniest, and most problematic, crossroads, ultimately denying her Korean-American parents’ wishes and finding the questionable moral high ground in sticking with political campaigning—a decision the film celebrates via a truncated conclusion.
Knife Fight believes its smugness is permitted by the subject matter of mud-slinging campaigns. Worse is its miscalculation of tone, as Guttentag can’t decide whether to frame his limp narrative of cutthroat campaign supervisors as a parody of the election process or a morality play about tricky ethical dilemmas. What results is a sterile and glib have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too scenario where the audience is called to alternately laugh at these people (even if those jabs, such as “another affair and maybe you better run in France next time,” are unfunny and dated) and sympathize with them via lame attempts at humanization (the most risible being Paul’s half-assed, presumably cathartic jog after hearing that one of the targets of his smear campaign tried to commit suicide). Guttentag exaggerates the absurd lengths advisors go to win an election and yet ultimately aggrandizes their behavior. It’s a simplistic ploy not unlike a transparent political move, spinning faux-relatable narratives to cover up the film’s own empty insights.