Like clockwork every two years near the end of summer a Will Ferrell vehicle arrives on the scene to make a case for the title of funniest movie of the year. In 2004 it was Anchorman, in 2006 it was Talladega Nights, in 2008 it was Step Brothers and in 2010 it was The Other Guys. Pretty much everything the SNL funny man has done in between these films (spare for the underrated dramedy Stranger than Fiction) has been crap. Now, in 2012, here comes The Campaign.
Similarly like clockwork every year as we near November (and even more so in presidential election years) we are overwhelmed by negative campaign ads, increasingly absurd political wrangling and non-stop nattering idiots in the media. It is this milieu that The Campaign wisely and broadly assails.
In North Carolina’s Mayberry-esque 14th district, Cam Brady (Will Ferrell, doing a great riff on his previous Dubya impersonation crossed with the perfectly coifed sleaziness of John Edwards) has run uncontested for years on three simple words – America, Jesus and Freedom. But that’s all about to change when the billionaire corporatist Motch Brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) see an opportunity to put up a puppet candidate who will help them bring Chinese slave labor to American shores. In walks the incompetent Marty Huggins (Zack Galifianakis, perfectly embodying the oddly effeminate weirdo Southern mamma’s boy archetype) to run against Brady.
The satire here isn’t particularly sharp or probing, but it is spot on. Political campaigns have become so absurd in this post Citizens United world that director Jay Roach and team have a hard time coming up with fictional situations that can top real-world scenarios – but they do their best with much hilarity. Republicans. Democrats. Religion. Morons. Dogs. Nobody is off-limits. And in The Campaign, much like the real world, nothing fazes the ADD-riddled media and over-zealous but uniformed constituency. Infidelity. Baby punching. Sex tapes. Anything goes. And the polls go up and down like a roller-coaster while the candidates corruptly careen to a finish line.
Some of the funnier side shows include Dylan McDermott as the prototypical evil campaign manager who shows up out of nowhere and disappears behind black curtains and Karen Maruyama as Marty Huggins’ father’s Asian maid who is compelled to talk and act like a Gone With the Wind-style mammy because it reminds the old man (Brian Cox) of the good ol’ days. The film clocks in at a swift 85 minutes, wasting no time with filler that kills many other comedies and keeps the jokes coming at a good clip.
The Campaign does offer somewhat of a false happy ending. Both idiots come to a realization that evil like the Motch Brothers needs to be stopped and sometimes truth is the best policy. When Marty Huggins starts telling the truth on the eve of the election, the media hilariously proclaims it the most outlandish stunt of the campaign yet (this after his opponent airs a humiliating sex tape involving Huggins’ wife).
I like to judge comedies like this not on artistic grounds but simply on whether they “work” or not. The Campaign works, almost too well. Ultimately the test of such a timely comedy will be if it’s still funny in thirty years. If it is, then sadly that means not much in politics will have changed. On the other hand, if it comes across as a quaint, idealistic drama about a bygone era of better days - well, then hell, we will have gone so far up shit’s creek we might as well move to China.
Written by David H. Schleicher