[10 August 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Koch Industries is just a terrible, terrible citizen as far as I’m concerned. I think Koch Industries has done a major disservice to the state of Kansas.
—Kansas State Senator Tim Owens
“This behavior,” pronounces Cam Brady (Will Ferrell). “We can’t have this.” Standing before a bank of reporters, backed by his wife and his campaign manager, the Democratic Congressman from North Carolina is emphatic, insisting that public figures shouldn’t be leaving filthy phone messages for their mistresses—especially when those messages are left on the wrong answering machines. When a reporter in the crowd raises his hand to point out, “But you made the call,” Cam doesn’t miss a beat. He’s made 100,000 phone calls, and only occasional mistakes. Besides, the family whose number he called: what are they doing with an answering machine in this day and age anyway?
Cam’s belligerent certainty makes him an ideal sort of candidate in The Campaign: no matter what happens, he can spin it, express his outrage, deny responsibility, blame someone else, leave his listeners with the slogan that’s kept him rolling, “America! Jesus! Freedom!” He’s good at all of it, his skills not exactly honed by running unopposed for four terms. The phone call, though, that’s been affecting his numbers, according to his manager Mitch (Jason Sudeikis). Ordinarily, that wouldn’t matter, but now, they’ve got an opponent.
The appearance of Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), supported by the corporateering Motch brothers, Wade (Dan Aykroyd) and Glenn (John Lithgow), gives Cam a few moments’ pause. The Motches see something more at stake than sending a congressman to DC to not read bills and play videogames, as Cam admits to doing. “My brother and I, we’re job creators and also candidate makers,” Glenn submits, all they need is to cut back on regulations, insource some laborers, and cut a deal with China. And so they put up Marty, bumbling amateur who’ll turn into a slick enough contender after their super-handler Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) gets hold of him.
At once utterly sinister and broadly cartoonish, the Motches’ boy Tim embodies The Campaign‘s fundamental trouble, which is to say, it picks easy targets and pretty much stops there. Once he pops up in the back of Marty’s car, fierce in his black leather jacket, Tim’s joke is pretty much done. He’ll remake Marty, replace the striped sweaters with suits and ties, program some talking points, and refit his home with gun racks, many leather sofas, and a pair of manly-man retrievers rather Marty’s walking reaction-shot pug dogs, Poundcake and Muffins, instantly deemed “Chinese dogs” by his opponent. And Marty will buy in, because he’s got an inveterately disappointed dad, Raymond (Brian Cox), he’s dying to please.
After living for years with his father’s bitter condescension (“You really are a sad little fucker”), Marty has obvious reason to follow Tim’s orders. These orders amount to a series of gags, illustrating the generic brutality of the campaign and Marty’s essential unpreparedness (an idea that’s actually best conveyed by a 20-second shot, as he minces over a sloping lawn, away from the camera toward Raymond, who awaits him in a fishing boat like Michael Corleone: the view of Marty’s baggy-pantsed backside and slumping shoulders is a perfect little Chaplinesque bit). Tim winds him up, taunts him, leads him to believe he can be smarter and tougher than Cam (not a lofty goal). What Marty doesn’t get, but you’d be hard pressed to miss, is that he’s only entering into a deplorable, terminally corrupt system.
It would be one thing if all this piling on was clever, or maybe yielding original analyses, but in The Campaign, it’s just piling on. In between the Motches’ cigar-chomping and evil-glare-sharing, the candidates’ pratfalls and baby-punching, the yucky sex fantasies acted out and the race stereotypes played for laughs (Raymond prefers that his Asian housekeeper [Karen Maruyama] speak like a Southern mammy because it reminds him of “the old days”), the film seems to be taking up a splatter approach to gags, not caring which might stick.
This holds doubly true for the gags dressed up as the candidates’ wives: Cam’s Mrs., Rose (Katherine LaNasa), puts up with his affairs with aerobics instructors, plays the good wife and plastic mother of two, in exchange for photo ops and designer outfits. Marty’s wife Mitzi (Sarah Baker) is more tentative, seduced by the initial celebrity and her new “Katie Couric” haircut, but soon missing her husband, especially the nights when they gobble up Twinkies, Twizzlers, and Donettes with the kiddies.
She’s not precisely an emblem of moral purity, but she’s the closest the film comes to an articulation of earnest values, devoted to her family and aware of the propulsive dishonesty and egotism tying her husband in knots, even when he’s not. As the most insightful individual in The Campaign—or maybe just the least clueless—Mitzi’s not so much welcome as inevitable.