Silver City

John Sayles’ “Silver City” gets off to a fantastic start, then becomes mired in Sayles’ weakness for enormous ensemble casts and murky plots. The guy can tell a great story when he wants to, but I guess sometimes he just doesn’t want to.

At the outset, it’s a smart, snappy political satire. It could be David Mamet’s “State & Main.” It shows us a dim, folksy politician named Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), who is running for governor of Colorado, shooting an “I care about the environment” campaign commercial on a lake. When he casts his fishing line into the water, it snags on something: a dead body.

His team springs into action. His sharky campaign manager, Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss), does what he can to keep the incident under wraps and hires a private investigator named Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston) to determine whether it’s truly a coincidence or whether the opposition put the body there as a means of sabotaging Pilager’s commercial.

Cooper earns laughs and would appear to be the protagonist, or at least one of them, as he plays a character obviously based on George W. Bush and rife with comic possibilities. We are told he is not corrupt, just “user-friendly” — in particular, he is currently in the pocket of companies that wish to destroy the environment in the name of progress.

But before long Dickie Pilager is sent to the back burner as the movie focuses on Danny O’Brien, the detective. Danny used to be a journalist, then he got into some trouble. His ex-girlfriend, Nora (Maria Bello), still is a journalist, and she’s covering Pilager’s campaign. Her new boyfriend (Billy Zane) is a lobbyist for tobacco companies. You know she’s not gonna stay with a guy like that for very long, even if he is charming like Billy Zane.

I’ve barely begun to mention the cast. Tim Roth and Thora Birch play underground journalists who write for a muck-raking Web site. James Gammon plays the local sheriff, Michael Murphy plays Pilager’s father, a senator, Daryl Hannah plays Dickie’s insane sister, Kris Kristofferson and Miguel Ferrer are in there somewhere — the list goes on. The story is labyrinthine, with everyone connected to everyone else, and Sayles tackles subjects that include illegal aliens, corporations, politics and the environment. This would be a lot to handle on an entire political campaign, let alone one two-hour movie, and Sayles’ focus is often unclear.

The performances are uniformly good, and there are some nice surprises sprinkled throughout. I enjoyed enough chunks of the film to recommend it — Dreyfuss’ cynical adviser, Hannah’s wacko political sibling, etc. — though I can’t say I much enjoyed the thing as a whole.

B- (2 hrs., 4 min.; R, scattered F-words, a little violence.)