“An Acceptable Risk” is “Scandal” with less sex and fewer fireworks. Almost no fireworks, to be honest.
It’s a somber, chatty political thriller about a guilt-ridden ex-National Security Advisor, her stalker and the government security apparatus she left behind, which doesn’t want her to leave it behind.
Writer-director Joe Chappelle, who has TV’s “Fringe,” “Chicago Fire” and “The Wire” among his credits, has turned out a tepid “Who is about to do what to whom?” tale of the low-heat, meek-payoff variety. It unfolds TV-series slowly and the third act “thrills” don’t merit that label, creating a film that’s more frustrating than exciting, and a lot less sensible and logical than it makes itself out to be.
Tika Sumpter of “The Old Man and the Gun,””Southside With You” and the “Ride Along” comedies is Libby Lamm, former advisor to a vice president, out of office for four years and still somebody who draws protests and angry shouts when she’s recognized in public.
She’s estranged from her mother, on distant terms with her newspaper editor father (Clarke Peters) and lives without email or any kind of phone.
“How do you communicate with the world?”
A decision she helped justify, in a Colin Powell sense (for those who have recently seen “Vice”) haunts her. So naturally, she turns up at a Chicago college — protesters screaming “Peace starts HERE” in tow — to teach “Understanding Contemporary Warfare.”
But she has a stalker, a swarthy, solitary young student (Ben Tavassoli of “Overlord”) who shadows the new teacher, spends a lot of time photographing and researching her, and whose roommate speaks for us all when he complains, “It’s just the sneaking around that weirds me out a little bit.”
What’s he up to?
As Libby copes with faculty parties where drunken academics scream “What you did was UNCONSCIONABLE!” she spends many a flashback going over, in her head, what put her here, the debates, dogma and doctrine that she absorbed from her former boss, bellicose Vice President Burke.
Chappelle has a “Halloween” film, “The Curse of Michael Myers,” also in his credits. And the fact that he didn’t have Jamie Lee Curtis at his disposal there must explain why he hands this movie over to her.
Curtis, as Burke, devours the flashbacks, lending a little of that chased-by-a-monster pluck and fierceness to her Hillary-meets-Dick Cheney veep — an unquestioning idealogue who doesn’t flinch from Big Decisions with Big Blowback.
“The stars, they are aligning,” V.P. Burke lectures. And if they don’t align, Libby, MAKE them align, she adds.
“Doesn’t it bother you that the idea of ‘American Expectionalism’ is an anachronism?”
She preaches a “total and absolute response” that will teach “these primeval bastards” and indeed “send the whole WORLD a message.”
This is an iron lady with a very clear idea of what “An Acceptable Loss” means.
You can guess what she did, using “smartest person in the room” Libby to buttress her arguments. Curtis is the jolt “An Acceptable Loss” needs. But there is entirely too little of her in it.
Instead, we’re treated to the slow simmer of Libby’s rising paranoia — that she’s being watched, that somebody is getting into her rental house. Yes, she’s packing heat. But she’s changing the locks, getting a safe to store her valuables and fending off an ex-lover/agent (Jeff Hephner) who approaches her with his “You’re either with us or against us” message from the administration.
Meanwhile, we’re spending a lot of time with her stalker. He’s testing her security, photographing her house as he circles it, probing for weaknesses. Next thing you know, out come the rubber gloves — breaking and entering time.
“An Acceptable Loss” makes a covenant with the viewer — go along with us, reason this out and pick up the clues about what happened and what was averted, who was responsible and what role Libby played in it.
Track her stalker as he invades her life, fret about what the government wants from a woman who screams “I served faithfully. I did everything I was asked to do — EVERYthing!”
But a comically far-fetched turn of events robs the film of the chance to ratchet up what little suspense it manages, and deflates the movie entirely.
The Curtis scenes have a sort of lip-smacking equivocation about them, bringing to mind Hillary Clinton if she had all the Rumself/Cheney qualities (bluff, heartless and heedless of warnings) often attributed to her.
Sumpter is reduced to bystander in these scenes — cowed, passive. We want something more pro-active from her in the rest of the film, dealing with government threats, academic boors and Martin her stalker.
Chappelle doesn’t write that into her character, and Sumpter let him get away with it.
MPAA Rating: R, sex, profanity
Cast: Tika Sumpter, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Tavassoli
Credits: Written and directed by Joe Chappelle. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:42