The characterizations and joke-telling in The Campaign, Jay Roach’s new political satire about two North Carolina politicians vying for a desirable Congressional seat, are about as riddled with precisions and calculations as the same political process the movie seems to believe it is lampooning. It is rated R, contains naughty language and irreverent humor and it may even flash a breast or two (though I honestly cannot remember if it does). Yet the way it tiptoes around the minefield of national politics hints at just how dearly it hopes to avoid alienating folks of red and blue leanings alike with its message. It’s a shame the movie had not been more willing to offend; had its perspective been better defined – its cynicism exaggerated – this might have been what is sadly a rarity nowadays: a mainstream parody with some actual bite.
I do want to avoid being overly harsh in my appraisal for The Campaign, however. As a rapid-fire vulgar-joke-machine, the movie is perfectly serviceable. This is in large part thanks to the committed performances of its stars, Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as the film’s dueling politicos. Ferrell plays Cam Brady, the district’s longstanding liberal incumbent and transparent John Edwards doppelganger. Suffering a dip in the polls following an ill-concealed extramarital affair, a pair of ultra-rich tycoons called the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) track down the perfect dupe to take the Republican ticket, usurp Brady’s seat and to serve his tenure as their corporate stooge.
Cue in Galifianakis’ Marty Huggins – an effete and hopelessly sincere family man, a small business owner and a lover of pugs – to provide due representation for the two Job Creators over at Koch Motch Industries. Earnest to a fault, Huggins believes the election will be determined solely on strong values and a genuine desire to serve the people, despite the insidious motivations of his financial backers. Not to be outmatched with sincerity, the more seasoned Rep. Brady opts for no-holds-barred cynicism, resorting to character assassination (accusing his Chinese pugs of being “un-American”) and scandal mongering (seducing Huggins’ his wife, recording the act, and using it in an attack ad) to retain his seat. When it is clear just how far Brady will go to win, the Motch brothers hire a snidely political strategist (Dermott Mulroney) to alter Huggins’ off-putting public demeanor by getting him to change his effeminate voice, to get less un-American dogs, and to combat Brady’s vapid albeit aurally pleasing sound bites with equally vapid yet even more aurally pleasing sound bites.
On a case-by-case basis, much of the irreverence and wackiness of The Campaign admittedly amuses. The script is tailored to the respective comedic strengths of both Ferrell and Galifianakis, and the two actors deliver the material in a manner that is at least workmanlike in delivery, if not remarkably inspired. It is precisely that lack of inspiration, though, that underlines my disappointment with this movie. The Campaign feels like it should be something of a dream project for Jay Roach, who has directed low-brow farces like Meet the Parents and Austin Powers and has won Emmys for his HBO political dramas like Recount and Game Change. Roach’s comedic muscle seems sufficiently flexed here, yet I am compelled to ask: In a movie about the outrageous ecosystem of politics, where’s the outrage?
Roach seems to be expressing some kind of sentiment regarding the corrupting nature of money in politics as well as the comically fickle and volatile nature of the electorate. But that allegory is cravenly weak-tea, never daring to make a point more insightful or original than “our political discourse is vapid” or “the people with the money are the winners.” Does any voter actually need a 90-minute movie to teach them these points?
The screenplay by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell reeks of calculation as well; it bends over backward in ensuring that even the movie’s real-life parallels have little chance of opening themselves up for accusations of partisan bias. The problem with that is that it effectively opens the movie up to accusations of tone-deaf satire. Brady and Huggins – a Democrat and a Republican, respectively – shift from one position to another with no apparent regard for what their establishment parties might have to say. That’s hard fiction to swallow, considering how draconian each party has been these past few years regarding the unity of their platforms. Even the Motch brothers, who are clear analogs for a system of corporate welfare, are made to devise a plan that vaguely resembles outsourcing, but it isn’t exactly out-sourcing. You know…just in case you made the mistake of thinking the movie had something expressly negative to say about rich people, corporations or any other politically charged target.
The message of The Campaign works purely to lend plot credence to what is essentially a mash-up of Galifianakis and Ferrell’s comic stylings, and not a genuine political plea of any sort. That would not necessarily be a problem had the movie been aiming for something more apolitical, if not flat-out nihilistic. Trey Parker’s Team America managed to offend across party lines without staking an explicit position, but that film never came prepackaged with the pretense of making a conventional political point. That The Campaign feigns earnestness is a disappointment, not merely because it is disingenuous, but because it obscures much of what else this movie does, and manages to do fairly well.
Bottom Line: Thanks to stars Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, The Campaign certainly has its moments of hilarity. But as a satire, it falls disappointingly short.