Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is a popular five-term congressman from the great state of North Carolina. He has John Edwards’ hair, Bill Clinton’s sleaze, and George W Bush’s willful ignorance. He’s so popular that he’s running unopposed for reelection, which is something that never happens; obviously, this guy is beloved. Until he leaves a very graphic message on the answering machine of a constituent, rather than his mistress. That kills his poll numbers, and with blood in the water, the district is up for the taking.
Enter the Motch Brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow playing barely-changed versions of billionaire power brokers the Koch brothers). They sense weakness, and they have a unique plan to turn their billions of dollars into more billions using an innovative labour scheme called insourcing (you import the sweatshop to America). All they need is a friend in the district. They find their friend in Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the naïve son of a local power broker who is, to put it mildly, very weird, but very sweet. That’s why they’ve got Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), a brilliant campaign manager who will do anything to turn Marty Huggins into a political powerhouse.
Will Marty prevail in his goal of running an honest, fair campaign, or will the neophyte be dragged down to Cam Brady’s level and then beaten with experience? Can someone become a politician and still retain something of a soul? Why has it taken so long for someone to cast Ackroyd and Lithgow as brothers? If you like deep philosophical issues combined with a baby getting punched and Will Ferrell screaming, The Campaign is the movie for you.
Considering that The Campaign skewers both Democrats and Republicans fairly equally (albeit in different ways), I guess you could call it a moderate picture. In that sense, it’s also moderately funny. Some things The Campaign does are very funny, and some of the movie lands with a thud. That’s pretty standard for most comedies, and while the funny parts are funny, the failed jokes are really bad. Director Jay Roach does his best to instill some madcap energy to the project, but aside from a couple of sequences, the film is a pretty standard comedy from a style standpoint.
Both stars have done better work, both have much worse, and neither is stretching particularly far. We’ve seen Will Ferrell do this sort of song and dance before. Take Ricky Bobby, add in some George W Bush, sprinkle a bit of Ron Burgundy, and you’ve got Cam Brady. Ditto Zach Galifianakis, who at least does something different with the effeminate yet heterosexual awkwardness that is Marty Huggins.
His stock in trade is awkward guys in fanny packs, but Huggins’ weirdness is at least fairly innocent. Of the supporting players, John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd play the Duke & Duke roles from Trading Places, Brian Cox makes a welcome appearance, and Jason Sudeikis plays it mostly straight as Brady’s campaign manager, the real stand-out is the uber-sleazy Tim Wattley brought to the table by a black-clad Dylan McDermott. McDermott steals every scene he’s in, simply by force of will and presence alone.
The let-down seems to be the script, from Chris Henchy (The Other Guys) and Shawn Harwell (Eastbound & Down). The movie deals heavily in broadsides – what Will Ferrell movie doesn’t? – and it seems as though it lacks any real sense of edge. It settles for “Ha ha, Cam is stupid and sleazy and Marty is a rube who dresses funny!” when I think it could have been much more satirical.
It tries to take politics and political attack ads to an Idiocracy level of satire, but never quite makes it that far, probably because real political ads are so sleazy and base to begin with that to go to a satirical extent would be too over-the-top for the tone of the movie. Despite being pretty daft, it’s also fairly grounded, making it an odd combination of Austin Powers and Roach’s more hard-hitting political work, like Game Change and Recount.
The movie gets some laughs, which it would have to do given its pedigree, but it’s a flawed sort of creation. It tries to be smart, it tries to be dumb, it tries to be both sharp and broad, and while it manages to do these things occasionally, there’s absolutely no focus or consistency to the film. To make an election-centric comedy in an election year is something of a gamble, and it’s not one that pays off well for The Campaign. The scenarios in the movie are pretty crazy, but not quite as crazy as real politics.
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