By Linc Leifeste | August 9, 2012
Director: Jay Roach
Writers: Chris Henchy, Shawn Harwell
Starring: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Dylan McDermott, Katherine LaNasa, Sarah Baker, John Lithgow, Dan Akroyd, Brian Cox, Karen Maruyama, Grant Goodman, Kya Haywood, Randall D. Cunningham
“War has rules, mud wrestling has rules — politics has no rules.” The Campaign opens with this Ross Perot quote from his 1992 run for the White House and if it was true then, how much more so now? Really, is there anything more laughable than the current state of American politics? With our nation divided, extremism thriving, and voters evidently having a shorter attention span than ever, our soundbite-obsessed, attack-ad-oriented political culture with it’s banal 24-hour talking head analysis disguised as intelligent discourse is probably the strongest indicator there is that we are a nation and a culture in advanced decline. So maybe the situation is not so much funny as depressing. Either way, whether from laughing or crying, it’s all enough to bring a tear to your eye and a component of American life that is rife with comedic potential. And who better to elicit a little laughter from the masses than Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis? Sadly, despite a strong absurdist start, The Campaign ultimately settles into conventional blandness, playing things as safe as any poll-driven politician.
Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is North Carolina’s four-term incumbent congressman, with John Edwards’ perfect hair and matching (lack of) morals. Driven primarily by base desires and evidently lacking any self-control, he philanders at a Kennedyesque pace despite the best efforts of his overworked campaign manager Mitch (Jason Sudeikis) to keep his urges in check. He also happens to be on the verge of running unopposed for re-election until Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) awkwardly crashes his “filing party” just before the deadline with papers in hand. Marty, an ineffectual tour guide by trade, is an effeminate, mild mannered, doltishly dressed husband and father of two and a political novice. So how did such a sad sack come to run for Congress? After Brady makes the mistake of leaving a sexually explicit voicemail on the wrong person’s answering machine, wealthy conservative power-brokers the Motch brothers, Glenn (John Lithgow) and Wade (Dan Akroyd), smell blood in the water and decide to find someone, anyone, to run against Brady. It turns out Huggins descends from North Carolinian political roots, although his father (Brian Cox) is not prone to claim him as a son. Huggins, clearly in over his head, needs help so the Motch brothers send in bad boy political consultant Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) to make him over. And the battle is on.
The Campaign is directed by Jay Roach, known for both intelligent TV political dramas (Game Change and Recount) and big screen comedies (Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, Austin Powers films), so it seems this film would perfectly combine his two disparate directorial paths. The characters, the dialogue, the plot are all initially deliciously over the top, at times bordering on the absurd, and for the majority of the film the jokes hit more than they miss. The film makes some great, if obvious to most, points about the corrupting influence of money in politics, the sadly successful tactic of telling people what they want to hear and the power of negative campaigning. And Ferrell and Galifianakis are truly funny as the soulless career politician and the naive newcomer in over his head, the dymanic between the two generally a joy to behold. But as is so often the case with mainstream comedies such as this, the impulse to follow convention and wrap everything up with an unconvincing and unsatisfying happy ending is too much for Roach and company to resist, leaving the film lacking any real bite by the times the credits roll.