Making fun of politicians is as easy as that cliched imaginary contest known as shooting fish in a barrel. From the total calculated cluelessness of the candidates to the corrupt corporate money machine that acts as the power behind the throne, there’s more potential targets here than for Ted Nugent at a petting zoo. Now take said source and give it to the usually reliable Zach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell, set it in that hotbed of tolerance and intellectualism – the Deep South – and pepper it with a bunch of torn from the headline scandal. Wrap it up in the always interesting adlibbing of everyone involved and some unique ancillary character casting and you’ve got The Campaign, a movie that should be a lot funnier than it is. While there are lots of legitimate laughs, there are also jokes so insular that they make the rest of the missed opportunities seem specious.
Indeed, we should be doubled over in fits of hysteria when longtime Congressman Camden “Cam” Brady (Ferrell) is found in a port-a-potty with yet another overripe blond bimbo. Women are his Achilles’ heel, and he’s been able to fend off any scent of scandal…so far. This time around, he’s running uncontested, but when he blows off the PAC advances of the influential industrialists known as The Motch Brothers – Wade (Dan Aykroyd) and Glen (John Lithgow) – the duo are determine to find an easily manipulated alternative. Enter Martin “Marty” Huggins (Galifianakis), the son of an important power broker (Brian Cox) and ripe for rebranding and molding. As the race heats up, both sides employ dirty tricks to taint the other’s name. When the Motch’s plan is finally revealed, however, the campaign goes from personal to practical.
On a recent episode of the Charlie Rose interview program, Galifianakis, Ferrell, and director Jay Roach appeared and stated that The Campaign actually started off as a spoof of child beauty pageants – boy beauty pageants, specifically – with each adult playing the ‘stage’ presence behind their prepubescent charges. Whether or not they were telling the truth, or just ribbing Rose and his always genuine interest, remains a mystery. What is clear is that such an idea, even if off the top of one’s head during a genial Q&A, offers more satiric possibilities that what’s being presented as part of this passive political send-up. Poking fun at the fracas known as seeking elected office has become so common, so very much within the mainstream media mindset, that you really have to bring something new to the table less you look like an also-ran.
In this case, The Campaign doesn’t do enough with its sizable assets. Galifianakis and Ferrell are so good at playing buoyant manchild bumpkins that they practically bleed pralines and sweet tea. The former, in particular, has the fey, “is he gay?” routine down to an antebellum science. Roach earns kudos too for not falling into familiar traps. Yes, Marty is a meek pseudo-Momma’s boy bullied by his terse, throwback pappy, but he’s risen above to become something of a local landmark. He runs the small town’s tourism industry and seems happily married with children (one of the film’s best bits involve the vetting process, with his kin confiding their many “sins” to their perturbed patriarch). Had the movie merely focused on this oddball eccentric running against the ideological machine, The Campaign may have caught fire.
Instead, equal time must be given to Ferrell who, frankly, isn’t given enough to do. We get that Cam is a lout, that he’s willing to walk away from a rally to catch up with a cutie whose sporting a sizable rack, but that seems all that this character is interested in. There’s hints at drug and alcohol abuse, but they are pushed aside for more mammaries mistress fodder. In fact, Ferrell must do most of the outrageous heavy lifting here. As the trailer attests, he gets to punch a baby (another hilarious moment), double speak his way out of an accusatory press conference, and attempt the seduction of Marty’s wife. But Cam is also a cipher, a cynically one note characterization of the modern politico. All he needs is an intern (either gender) in his bedroom and a villainous corporate sponsor in his back pocket to make the archetype complete.
Thus The Campaign plays like two separate films – Marty’s and Cam’s. Roach does a decent job of juggling the various vignettes that make up the plot, even if we don’t really believe in the accelerated timeline. Politics change in an hour, not a week, and the downtime between diversions makes for suspect storytelling. Cam, in particular, is so eager to take Marty down that he would be brainstorming every minute of the day – that is, when he isn’t having sex with some big breasted college kid. Still, there’s enough solid material here to keep you entertained and smiling. Highlights include an Asian maid with a forced Gone with the Wind attitude and Dylan McDermott as one of the shadiest campaign managers ever. Sure, not all the gags work, but those that do offer a chance to escape the actual idiocy and forget the real trash talk going on pre-Election 2012.
In fact, the biggest problem facing The Campaign may be the actually state of politics in this uncertain voting era. From FOX News throwing its own pre-ordained candidates under any and all buses that come along to the ongoing malaise that is the Democratic party platform, we are living in strange, self-satirizing times. A pundit will pull some fact out of context, claim it as truth, and – POW! – we’ve got another pristine punchline. In order to compete with that, Galifianakis and Ferrell would have to be far filthier and more frenetic that what we see here. Indeed, whenever it should be pressing on the gas, The Campaign applies the breaks instead. All F-bombs and inappropriate innuendo aside, you need to be different if you’re going to excel beyond what’s actually out there. The Campaign has such potential. Like most things with politicians, it’s promises go unrealized and unfulfilled.