Starring Rob Lowe, Eric McCormack. Written by Bill Guttentag, Chris Lehane. Directed by Bill Guttentag. STC. 98 min. Opens Jan. 25.
It’s not surprising that a film co-written by a former aide to Bill Clinton pivots on a plot point where a high-powered politician gets caught with his pants down. In fact, there are two such figures in Knife Fight: an incumbent Kentucky governor (Eric McCormack) and a beloved West Coast senator (David Harbour), both of whom employ Paul Turner (Rob Lowe) as their resident PR guru. A master spin doctor who operates without scruples, Paul and his team do their best to get both men out of their respective jams.
Lowe, whose rebirth as a comic actor on Parks and Recreation has been a delight to watch, continues his upswing here. He believably inhabits a man whose personal motto is “WWMD” (What would Machiavelli do?) and doesn’t hedge on the character’s more unlikeable aspects. Unfortunately, the film ultimately works against the performance by shifting tonal gears from bleakly persuasive backstage political satire to populist uplift. A subplot involving a doctor (Carrie-Anne Moss) who wants to make her own grassroots gubernatorial bid occasions one of Lowe’s best moments, a searing monologue meant to dissuade a well-meaning naïf from entering such a bloody arena. She ignores him, and as her campaign gathers steam, the movie—which had been humming along nicely on the strength of some pungent dialogue and strong ensemble acting work—loses much of its energy.
Guttentag deserves credit for giving a low-budget production credible surface textures. (The various attack ads deployed by Paul and his rivals are extremely funny and well done.) But even if a lot of what’s here is surprisingly sharp, in the end, Knife Fight doesn’t cut particularly deep.