You can tell outsiders from the establishment by the quality of their facial hair in Grassroots, an adaptation of Phil Campbell’s nonfiction book about scruffy Grant Cogswell’s (Joel David Moore) upstart July 2001 campaign—managed by scraggly bearded ex-reporter Campbell (Jason Biggs)—to unseat the dapper, mustached Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer) on Seattle’s city council. Cogswell and Campbell shake things up via a platform centered on expanding the city’s clean-air monorail system, but director Stephen Gyllenhaal, despite celebrating by-the-people activism (which apparently involves lots of heavy metal and vandalism), hews to a rather standard us-versus-them template. More problematic is that Cogswell, who has a fondness for polar bear costumes, is depicted as such a vulgar blowhard that the film never sells his populist appeal, which skyrockets almost as fast as Campbell botches his relationship to girlfriend Emily (Lauren Ambrose), beds monorail supporter Clair (Cobie Smulders), and then reconnects with Emily. Gyllenhaal’s shaky-cam cinematography doesn’t amplify the material’s DIY spirit, and both Biggs and Moore argue, preach, and ramble on with affected fervor. Meanwhile, by ultimately softening its stance toward McIver, Grassroots disingenuously has it both ways, reducing politics first to a David-versus-Goliath adventure, and then to an everyone-is-cool bowl of mush. Nick Schager
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.