In terms of offering insight, laugh-out-loud fun, or even catharsis by way of razor-edged satire, The Campaign is only a runner-up, instead of a victor.
In The Campaign, Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a North Carolina congressman who has run unopposed for many a term, enjoying the perks of power with little regard for actual public service. When Cam’s philandering ways land him in the media crosshairs, his rock-hard platform of “Family, Jesus and Freedom” shows enough cracks to motivate black-hearted business tycoons Glenn and Wade Motch (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd, in a bit of ‘WTF?’ casting) to sponsor a new candidate to oppose Brady.
Enter Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the eccentric son of a wealthy family, who actually does care for his community. At first Marty seems like the ultimate fish-out-of-war in the violent jungle of U.S. politics, but under the guidance of a cutthroat campaign manager (Dylan McDermott), the oddball newcomer starts to gain serious ground on the favored incumbent.
But at what cost does victory come to a good man playing a dirty game? And what does a man so used to abusing power do when that power is being snatched away? As election day approaches, both Cam and Marty shed their kid gloves (and whatever morals and values they’ve held dear) as they prepare for a brutal fight to the victory podium.
The Campaign was directed by Jay Roach, who has been the man responsible for comedy hits like Austin Powers and Meet the Parents – as well as comedy misfires like Dinner for Schmucks and some of the later Austin Powers and Meet the Fockers sequels. Roach has also gained something of a political streak lately, having helmed the TV movies Recount and Game Change, which both dealt with the odd and/or impractical nature of the modern American political process.
If you can’t tell from that list of films above, Roach’s comedy style tends to be on the more lighthearted side, usually oscillating somewhere between clever satire and cartoonish slapstick. The Campaign is no different, in that it only takes light jabs at the political arena, is often quite silly, and works hard to straddle a political middle ground and avoid any partisan leanings, one way or the other. Taken altogether, these are qualities that mostly hinder the film.
Ferrell and Galifianakis are playing familiar types from their (overly exposed?) repertoire: Ferrell plays Cam as an alpha dog dunderhead, while Galifianakis plays Marty as an oddball who is so effeminate you’re just waiting for the big ‘in the closet’ gag to drop (though it never does). Basically, if you’ve seen Ferrell’s George Bush impressions on SNL, or Galifianakis in any one of his big movie roles, you already know these characters’ personalities and quirks.
What screenwriters Chris Henchy (The Other Guys) and Shawn Harwell (Eastbound & Down) do manage to do well is reverse the usual political stereotypes so that Cam is a Democrat with a stereotypical Republican ‘all-American’ attitude, while Marty is a Republican fitted with a stereotypical effeminate liberal personality. This reversal keeps the film from favoring any one side as a result of making one candidate “better” 0r “more likable” than the other – but doesn’t really add any greater meaning or purpose to the story. The goal here is not to offend any one side of the political debate; however, much like a real politician, in trying to cater to the whole wide range of viewers, there is something inevitably disingenuous and hollow about how this film presents its story…
…Which is why, when there are brief moments of anything edgy, they tend to stand out more. The Campaign‘s best moments are (ironically enough) not carried by its leads – but rather, by its cast of supporting players. The best gags in the film are pretty much owned by McDermott as militant (and ninja-like) campaign manager, Tim Wattley, and Karen Maruyama as Mrs. Yao, the multi-accented housekeeper of Marty’s father, Raymond (Brian Cox, in another wasted bit of ‘WTF?’ casting).
There are a couple of funny moments milked from other secondary characters (like Marty’s kids), but more prominent supporting characters – like Katherine LaNasa as Cam’s power-player wife, or Jason Sudeikis as Cam’s campaign manager – are given little to do, and have very few gags that actually hit. On the whole, tangental characters like Yao and Wattley are the only ones doing anything fresh, fun or unexpected; most of the time spent with the principal characters is just a retread of overly-familiar territory.
While not out to skewer political parties, The Campaign does have its sights set on taking on the actual electoral process – and all the pretty illusions and dirty truths that go along with it. Now and again, the movie does manage to strike a funny chord – like when Marty’s two pugs get labeled as “Chinese dogs” – but by now, pitfalls of the election process are so painfully obvious to most Americans that a lot of jokes in the film will likely seem dated or tired. It may still be worthy of a chuckle or two to see Marty’s family and house get a quick-flash political makeover (hint: less garden gnomes, more paintings of eagles) – or hear now-cliched absurd accusations and non-logic tossed around in political ads – but in terms of offering insight, laugh-out-loud fun, or even catharsis by way of razor-edged satire, The Campaign is only a runner-up, instead of a victor. Don’t be ashamed to find out these election results on home video.
The Campaign is now playing in theaters.