The campaign (a)
Director: Jay Roach
Cast: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd, Brian Cox, Dylan McDermott
Running time: 97 minutes
The Campaign is a comedy about a North Carolina Congressional election. Since it stars Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as rival candidates, the movie is obviously not a realistic depiction of the American electoral process. But its relationship to the reality of contemporary politics is nonetheless interesting to consider. Too soft and silly to be satire, too upbeat to be a cautionary tale, the film is a fun-house fable that both exaggerates and understates the absurdities of our democracy in this contentious election year.
Ferrell does his rabid frat-boy thing; Galifianakis does his deranged baby-man thing; and there may be comfort in the thought that the American people would never elect clowns like these to any office. But then a glance at some of the clowns we do elect, perhaps especially to our national legislature, might lead you in the opposite direction.
And so The Campaign wobbles between the vaguely topical and the completely preposterous. The villains are a pair of fraternal billionaires called the Motch brothers, played with brandy-swilling, cigar-wielding relish by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd. They have been the enthusiastic backers of Cam Brady (Ferrell), a blow-dried Democrat who is both a Blue Dog and a tomcat, espousing a vague platform of guns, God and family while violating his marriage vows at every opportunity.
But now tired of him and eager to fast-track a rotten deal with their Chinese business partners, the Motches recruit Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), the sweet, wimpy son of a legendary local politico, to run against Cam.
Daddy Huggins (Brian Cox) wearily gives his blessing. A black-suited Motch hatchet man named Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) is dispatched to make Marty, who runs a small-town tourist office and dotes on his pet pugs, into a mean political fighting machine.
It is not an easy transformation because Marty is squeaky-voiced, easily flustered and just a wife and two sons away from being an egregious gay stereotype.
He is, however, persuasively North Carolinian, though not altogether convincingly Republican. But in a movie like this, with all its pseudo-naughty provocations about body parts and functions, and its occasional forays into misogyny and ethnic and regional caricature, the real taboo is partisanship.
Though some literal-minded conservatives might object to the implied parallel between the Motch brothers and the real-life Koch brothers, it should be noted that the movie’s scheming plutocrats represent a plague-on-both-your houses gag. They are happy to buy politicians from either party, as long as their mercenary interests are protected.
My point is that the movie, which is sometimes very funny in the usual zany, pop-surrealist sketch-comedy manner, is studiously inoffensive and thoroughly chicken-hearted.
The Campaign does what it can to deliver on this fantasy, or at least to distract the audience from painful truths that might shatter it altogether. It’s like a sober, centrist, irrelevant op-ed column, but with bad words and belly laughs.