Film

'The Campaign': More Satire, Less Scatology

Like most things with politicians, (The Campaign's) promises go unrealized and unfulfilled.


The Campaign

Director: Jay Roach
Cast: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Dylan McDermott, John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd, Brian Cox, Sarah Baker
Rated: R
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-08-10 (General release)
UK date: 2012-09-29 (General release)
Website
Trailer

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.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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