‘The Campaign’ Gone Awry

Elections represent opportunity. It’s an opportunity to make your voice heard as a voter or a candidate. It’s an opportunity for a changing of the guard or to stay the course. No matter what, though, it’s an opportunity for change. Change will happen even if the majority remains the same.

This past August, moviegoers made their voices heard at the box office, giving Will Ferrell’s latest comedy $86 million. It’s certainly a respectable amount, especially for a political film in an election year, but it’s about $33 million less than Ferrell’s last mainstream comedy, The Other Guys.

I’d have to say I agree with the people.

The Campaign, a top-heavy, half-dark exploration of the extremely dirty world of politics, isn’t a terrible Will Ferrell film, a la Step Brothers and Bewitched. It’s just another misfire for a man who can’t afford them.

Why? He’s getting older, and his schtick isn’t aging with him. The Other Guys did pretty well money-wise, but after the success of The Fighter and Ted, that may have been thanks more to Mark Wahlberg than Ferrell. Perhaps it’s time for a new outlandish comedian to take over… like Zach Galifianakis.

After busting into the mainstream with The Hangover, Galifianakis has been a hot ticket. From Up in the Air to Due Date to Puss in Boots, the bearded comedian has been pumping out hit after hit. He’s clearly on the upswing, so pitting him against Ferrell in a fictional campaign as his inexperienced but popular rival was a stroke of meta-genius.

Too bad it only works on the meta-level. Ferrell and Galifianakis never build up a believable vehemency for one another, despite some shockingly disgusting events going down. [possible SPOILERS] Galifianakis uses Ferrell’s teenage son in an ad pretending to be his father. Ferrell sleeps with Galifianakis’ wife. Then guns are involved, and that’s just the beginning.

Sadly, the ending doesn’t get bleaker. After 45 minutes of dirty politics, everyone decides to play nice and give us the heartwarming ending so many have come to expect from Hollywood—even when they don’t fit. [END of spoilers]

All we’re left with of interest is deciding who’s funniest: the aging veteran with multiple $100 million movies under his belt and an impressive SNL background, or the up-and-coming star who’s got today’s youth in his corner and the beard of a Greek god?

Ferrell gives us the usual—loud yelling, nudity, and uniquely vulgar phrases. Some of the jokes land, and his interpretation of a corrupt, lazy and ignorant politician inspires a few great gags (his obsession with his hair is particularly amusing). Yet he’s not doing anything we haven’t seen before, and like I mentioned earlier, it’s getting old.

Galifianakis provides us with another awkwardly memorable character. Marty Huggins is a pug-owner, trolley-tour provider, cardigan-wearing buffoon. He may or may not have a good heart—he goes back and forth on that one—and it’s hard to tell if we’re expected to be rooting for him. He’s too odd, too ignorant, and too vengeful to be a clear-cut protagonist.

Our only alternative, though, is Ferrell’s Cam Brady, an adulterer, an alcoholic and an abusive speaker. Yet he embraces his flaws and celebrates them as part of the lifestyle of a politician. Should we embrace him and his flaws because he does?

It’s never clear, which could have worked if the characters would have remained true to themselves throughout the film. Instead, they awkwardly transition about two-thirds of the way in to make more mainstream audiences happy. This is not how you make a black comedy. Black comedies with black characters have to maintain their darkness til the end, not cop out whenever it’s convenient.

So who’s funnier? I’d call it a draw. That may seem like I’m dodging the point, but I can only do what my leaders show me to do.

The Blu-ray release is also surprisingly lacking in special features, though it does include the rated and unrated versions of the film. Considering Ferrell’s affinity for improv, one would expect a bevy of bonus footage. Well, there is 15 minutes of pretty good deleted scenes, including a few extra shots of scene-stealer Dermot Mulrooney. As a ruthless campaign manager, Mulrooney perfectly captures the swagger of a balls-to-the-wall operator, but none of his scenes should have been cut.

There’s also a short line-o-rama segment and an even shorter gag reel. That’s it. If I’d donated anything to their super-pac, I’d expect a greater return.

RATING 4 / 10