The Campaign is probably Will Ferrell’s funniest movie in quite a while. Can’t say the same for Zach Galafianakis, but that’s because the first Hangover was pretty great. But otherwise it seems like his talents haven’t been as well used as they could. Jay Roach’s last film in theaters was the mediocre Dinner for Schmucks, surrounded by a couple of HBO movies, and before that it was Meet the Fockers. So we can say that it’s an improvement for a few of the folks involved.
I’ve skimmed some criticism from my peers and betters and have found that the reason a number of critics didn’t like this film is because they wanted it to be political commentary instead of a commentary on politics, which is what it is. Personally, I’m perfectly fine with this as, instead of trying to make political points, it’s using that energy to tell a story of two characters attempting to reach the same goal for two very different reasons and doing so at nearly any cost.
Ferrell is echoing his SNL portrayal of George W. Bush, with a big chunk of John Edwards thrown in for sleaze factor. (Hard to believe how close that guy came to the White House.) Ferrell’s Bush was always more of a character than an imitation, so it makes sense that his film character, Cam Brady, a four-time incumbent North Carolina Democrat congressman, can share so many traits while seeming somewhat original. His unhinged southerner cuts loose in a purely sociopathic way. He has tasted power and now he truly believes that nothing he does is wrong and that nothing is his fault. The fact that he’s been mentioned on a shortlist of vice-presidential candidates has only made it worse.
Galifianakis, meanwhile, dips into the effeminate weirdo that he has often channeled in his stage act (which he says is his brother) and in Todd Phillips’ moderately funny Due Date. He plays Marty Huggins, the misfit son of a powerful political strategist (the mighty Brian Cox). He runs an unsuccessful tourism office for a city with little to offer tourists, but he is darned enthusiastic about his job and his life. He is tapped by The Motch Brothers, played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow in a mode that is obviously channeling the Dukes from Aykroyd’s 80s classic Trading Places, to run against the formally unopposed Brady on the Republican ticket.
With his equally weird family and two slobbering pugs in tow, his campaign begins to pick up steam under the guidance of a rather intense Dylan McDermott, the Motch’s kingmaker. The brothers pull out all the stops since they figure Huggins is a dope they can keep in their pocket to get around labor violations.
Instead of pussy-footing around to get a PG-13, The Campaign is gleefully R-rated in the best way. Frequent (and creative) uses of foul language permeate the film while it’s punctuated with nudity, some of which you will wish you hadn’t seen. It helps mark a difference between this film and the juvenile dancing around the ratings board that Roach performed in the Austin Powers sequels.
The two leads smash into each other in a great way, with each new confrontation upping the stakes to delirious heights, mocking all of modern politics’ absurdities and a great many recent scandals. “Gotcha” ads, ridiculous debate logic, sex scandals, PACs, political favors, grooming candidates based on market testing, and even the Cheney shooting are pulled in as the contest becomes more and more ridiculous. If it wasn’t abundantly clear how annoying and stupid the “I approve this message” tag at the end of every political ad was before, it certainly will be when you’ve seen Ferrell do it naked on a bearskin rug.
By concentrating on the characters and the process instead of trying to make a political point with a sledgehammer, the film successfully manages to keep the comedy focused and continuous, even during the inevitable saccharine finale. Seriously, you just know it’s coming. It just can’t avoid it. But at least it doesn’t linger too long.
In the meantime, you’re treated to a couple of actors doing a great job of improvising off each other and a lot of talented people in small roles. Jack MacBrayer, Jason Sudeikis and a lot of other folks get their chance to shine.
This is one election I would hate to vote in, but it was a pleasure to watch. It made me laugh and that helps it overcome any of its minor shortcomings.
(Three and a half damns out of five)