REVIEW: Mild Goofball Laughs Of The Campaign No Match For Real Life Political Circus
The Campaign, the new comedy starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, faces the challenge that troubles all political satires these days, which is coming up with material that can rival what's actually happening in the news. And that's not a point made in some hacky stand-up comedian way — "Those crazy folks in D.C., am I right?" No, it has become a legitimate, daunting task to come up with anything that can surpass, for instance, the wild reality show that was the recent Republican primaries.
Director Jay Roach has, of late, mixed HBO dramatizations of contemporary political events like Game Change into a career otherwise dedicated to comedies like the Austin Powers franchise and Meet the Parents. The Campaign should theoretically fall nicely into the Venn diagram intersection between these two realms, but while frequently funny, it's a film that also feels disconcertingly and disappointingly mild, ignoring all sorts of specific, choice ammunition in favor of a storyline about how far political discourse has gotten from actual issues (while itself skirting any actual issues).
The villain in this case is unassailably soulless "big money," embodied by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, playing scheming billionaires whose real-life counterparts you may just be able to make out from the fact that they're named the Motch brothers — and even in that, the film doesn't really have any sting. It feels akin to setting a film in North Korea and then filling it only with jokes about accidentally ordering dog meat at restaurants. There's a giant elephant (and donkey) in the room.
As a goofball comedy, at least, The Campaign generally works, pitting Ferrell at his most obliviously pompous against Galifianakis in full, mincing weirdness. Ferrell's Cam Brady is the incumbent Congressman in the fictional 14th district of North Carolina, a Democrat (not that, as mentioned, it matters in the least) with a ferociously ambitious wife (Katherine LaNasa), two kids and an apparently steady, unchallenged political career.
But after a sex scandal involving a misdirected answering machine message tarnishes his image, Brady's position doesn't seem as secure, and the Motchs decide to fund an opponent who'll favor their interests. Their pick is the cardigan-and-turtleneck wearing doofus Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), who has no experience or anything else to recommend him for the job except that his father (Brian Cox) is a former Republican bigwig. He desperately wants to prove himself to his dad, and with the help of Motch agent Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) as his campaign manager, he starts shaping up to be a viable candidate.
Most of The Campaign deals with the increasingly absurd escalation in hostilities between the opponents, with Brady launching the first salvo against his naive opponent at a bipartisan brunch and the action quickly upping from there to spite sex and retaliatory "hunting accidents." There's a particularly rewarding recurring joke about a misdirected punch, an absurd take on a politician's nightmare that becomes an amusing twist on just what it would require to end a career these days. In that regard, the film has an entertainingly cynical take on how ridiculous moves, like the release of a sex tape campaign ad, result in a bump in the polls, likability competitions as bread and circuses for the masses.
The Campaign gets mileage out of pandering to religious groups — Brady does a press day at a snake handling church, while Huggins salutes Jesus Christ as the "greatest American who ever lived" — but neither that nor the repeated cracks about the candidates' non-answers, filled with talk of "freedom" and "jobs" and no actual content, are exactly hard-hitting or fresh. Bits about Brady noting that Huggins keeps pugs, which are from China and therefore must be of Communist origin, or Huggins digging up a book Brady wrote in the second grade as evidence of his belief in the redistribution of wealth really don't seem that far from actual, awful political attacks.
There are plenty of practical reasons for The Campaign's choice to remain non-partisan — isolating potential market share is, as the Motch brothers could surely tell you, bad business. But while funny enough, the film feels even smaller than its 85 minute runtime, like it runs through every last bit of the territory deemed safe to tread and just barely makes it to the credits at a credible feature length. Ferrell and Galifianakis both do what they've proven they can do so well in the past, while McDermott, clad in all black, is surprisingly good in a comedic role. You wish there was more for Aykroyd, Cox and Lithgow to do in their small and largely symbolic roles — Aykroyd and Lithgow in particular seem like they could have done more with a joke about disguising sweatshop labor that, while lifted from 30 Rock, is still a good one.
At a dark moment in his career, Ferrell's distraught Brady promotes the first person he sees in his office to the position of his campaign manager. The kid turnes out to be an intern, and the first thing the eager poli sci major brings up is that fact that we shouldn't give tax breaks to corporations that outsource jobs. Brady immediately throws him out in favor of someone with a background in sports marketing. It's cute, but it's also what you'd imagine the process of conceiving of and writing The Campaign was like. Having a character land on stage at an election event playing a keytar in the midst of cheerleaders while fireworks go off? It pales in comparison to an actual Herman Cain ad.