Though John Sayles has made a wide variety of films, he’s regularly returned to the complex, multi-character ensemble piece in pictures like “City of Hope” and “Sunshine State,” and most notably his masterpiece “Lone Star,” a picture in which the parts fall together so naturally that the final revelations seem almost inevitable. His latest effort along these lines, unhappily, is not nearly so successful. Sayles is a serious filmmaker whose efforts, however imperfect, always have interesting elements, and “Silver City” is no exception; but as a whole the picture flounders in a welter of obvious plot threads and broadly-drawn characters. And when it draws everything together toward the close, it tells you nothing that you won’t have guessed long before.

The picture begins, as “Lone Star” did, with the embarrassing discovery of a corpse–not buried in the desert this time around, but snagged in a Colorado lake during the filming of an environmental TV commercial by dim-witted, tongue-tied gubernatorial candidate Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper). Pilager’s shark-like campaign manager, Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss), is convinced that the body’s been planted to embarrass his man, so he hires PI Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), an erstwhile journalist, to check out three suspects: a crackpot right-wing radio host (Miguel Ferrer), a former government crusader ruined by the candidate’s senator-father (Ralph Waite), and Pilager’s disaffected, disowned sister (Daryl Hannah). But O’Brien’s efforts rekindle his old principled past, and aided by his muckraking pal Mitch Paine (Tim Roth), he uncovers evidence of skullduggery linking Senator Pilager (Michael Murphy) and his puppet son to malevolent mogul Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson), who aims to open up much of the state’s unspoiled land to economic development, and whose operations are linked to the activities involving environmental pollution and illegal immigrant labor that led to the death of the man found in that lake. If all this sounds complicated, rest assured we’ve only just scratched the surface. In addition to the many characters noted above, the script also references O’Brien’s old girlfriend (Maria Bello), a reporter currently involved with a shady Benteen-connected lobbyist (Billy Zane); O’Brien’s long-suffering boss (Mary Kay Place) and her husband (David Clennon), a land developer; Paine’s hippie-style assistant (Thora Birch); and a host of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, some heroic (e.g., Sal Lopez) and others villainous (Luis Saguar). Since Sayles’ reputation attracts so many recognizable faces to his films even in small parts, one doesn’t need a score card to keep track of who’s who; but you might wish for one that indicates who’s winning and why you should care.

The central problem with “Silver City” is that it’s an uneasy mixture of political satire and investigative thriller, with neither element coming off very well. On the one hand, Sayles’ darkly humorous intent is clear in the names he assigns to some characters–certainly Pilager and Raven are obvious enough; but if you’re going to take the “Dr. Strangelove” route in that respect, you’d better be sure your observations are as sharp as Kubrick’s. Here they’re not: Cooper is an amiable doofus, but as a parody of the Ineptus-in-Chief Dickie is strictly sophomoric stuff. And when one comes to the corruption revealed by an intrepid investigator, the matter proves, curiously enough, both obvious in its general outline but so murky in its details that it’s never satisfactorily resolved. The picture might aim to emulate the intricacy and sharpness of “Citizen Kane,” but in the end it actually resembles Orson Welles’ later, failed attempt to recapture his first film’s magic, the convoluted but drab “Mr. Arkadin” (1955). That doesn’t mean that there isn’t incidental pleasure to be derived from some of the performances in “Silver City.” Huston, with his wide grin and frazzled mien, makes an amusing gumshoe, Ferrer has fun chewing the scenery, Dreyfuss shows more restraint than usual, Zane captures his character’s slick sliminess effectively, and Roth is a convincingly gnarly zealot. But what they all have to offer is more a factor of what they bring to the script than what it offers them. As is customary with Sayles’ independent productions, the picture is more gritty than lovely to behold, even though it was photographed by Haskell Wexler.

Of course there’s always been a strong political slant to Sayles’ work, but when he’s at his best it’s displayed with a certain degree of indirection. In “Silver City” it’s emblazoned across the screen in exaggerated form, and though it may be agreeable to those who agree with his position, it makes for heavy-handed comedy and even blunter drama. This movie is less precious metal than debased alloy.