What passes for political discourse in America has become so egregiously stupid as of late that it is probably now impossible to satirize.
That may be why The Campaign doesn’t really bother. It’s the most infuriating kind of comedy, one that keeps flirting with sharp ideas, only to retreat into barn-door-broad buffoonery.
Will Ferrell stars as North Carolina Congressman Cam Brady, yet another one of the comic’s dim-bulb, over-entitled white guys who can’t see beyond his own boorishness. A good ol’ boy horndog constantly plagued by sex scandals and foot-in-mouth syndrome, he’s had a fine time of things, running unopposed for four terms in his backwater district.
Alas, Brady’s latest phone-sex faux pas has earned him the ire of the Motch Brothers, two billionaire industrialists who, in a nice touch, constantly refer to themselves as “job creators.” Played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow in a screamingly self-conscious homage to Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche in Trading Places, the dastardly brothers are aiming to sell Brady’s district to China, and feel like they need a fresh candidate to push through the necessary deregulations.
Enter Zach Galifianakis’ Marty Huggins, the preening oddball son of the Motch’s longtime crony (Brian Cox, the one person in this film who gets that understatement can be funny.) Marty’s a hopeless square with a fat family and some seriously swishy affectations. He’s a challenge for Dylan McDermott’s tireless campaign consultant, charged with giving this nebbish a macho makeover. The loneliest smart conceit in Shawn Harwell’s and Chris Henchy’s screenplay is that it doesn’t matter what a candidate says on the stump, just so long as he mentions Jesus, guns and the troops enough times.
Indeed, The Campaign’s one genuinely funny scene is Brady and Huggins’ first debate, during which neither gentleman says anything remotely of substance, yet both still whip the crowd into a frenzy with empty proclamations and meaningless slogans. If only the rest of the picture had even aspired to work on this level, we really might have had something.
Alas, remember we are talking about a Will Ferrell film. A gifted performer in small doses, Ferrell still has a difficult time committing to a character for the entire length of a movie. He suffers from an improv comedian’s insecurity, skittishly filling every silence with absurd non sequiturs that, more often than not, derail whatever it was the scene was supposed to be about in the first place.
And man, Galifianakis wore out his welcome in record time, didn’t he? He’s starting to make me nostalgic for Jack Black.
The Campaign quickly degenerates into a pissing contest between the two candidates, losing sight of anything the movie might have originally had to say about its subject in favor of increasingly nonsensical one-upsmanship maneuvers. By the time Ferrell films himself having kinky sex in the kitchen with Galifianakis’ portly wife and releases the footage as a campaign ad, this movie has jumped completely off the rails.
Director Jay Roach most recently helmed HBO’s Sarah Palin picture Game Change, so you think he might’ve had enough already of morons running for public office. But remember that Roach is also responsible for the Austin Powers and Fockers franchises. In other words, he keeps beating dead horses even after they’ve been turned into glue.
Shot on ugly video with Roach’s usual preponderance of unflattering close-ups, The Campaign suffers from the visual indifference that plagues most modern comedies, as well as a leniency that lets you know the stars are the ones calling the shots. The movie is less than an hour and a half, but feels much longer.
Roach can’t even manage a terrific gag about voting machines, burying it beneath a mawkish third act in which we are suddenly supposed to care about these nincompoops. The sudden outbreak of gooey idealism doesn’t mesh at all with The Campaign’s initially interesting cynicism regarding the political process.
Taken down 10 notches, The Campaign might have been something.
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