Rating: 14A – Coarse Language, Sexual Content
Run Time: 86 minutes
The Campaign is about two blowhard Southern politicians trying to outsmart each other at the polls. However, the movie’s raison d’etre has little I think to do with the upcoming U.S. election. Instead, The Campaign is more an exercise in the comic personalities of Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, who make better use of their screen time contending for our laughs than their characters do to get votes.
The result is a 90-minute raucous comedy of practical jokes that pretend to comment on American politics. It’s all very lightweight, with scenes that only vaguely reflect American culture and consciousness, and serve instead a broader punchline that panders to fans of unsophisticated vulgarity in lieu of sharp political satire. It’s all middlebrow: politics is the shunned backdrop for a movie that, above all, marvels in the personalities of its comedic duo.
Luckily, Ferrell and Galifianakis are amusing. Ferrell is Democrat Cam Brady, the incumbent of North Carolina’s 14th District. He’s running for his fifth term unopposed, until Galifianakis’s white collar family man Republican Marty Huggins stumbles onto the adjacent podium. Their motivations to join the candidacy is, more or less, because they felt like it. But Marty is less experienced and turns to his brothers, corrupt businessmen (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), who then hire the conniving Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) as Marty’s campaign manager.
These competitors disarm each other with tricks in the vein of Spy vs. Spy. Things don’t get too tired, since Ferrell and Galifianakis know how to play manic on two completely different extremes. Ferrell is the dapper, vain and glib politician who blindly uses Jesus as the star on his lapel. Galifianakis is the more naive, innocent, and amiable family man pulled into the aggressive undertow of political bargaining.
The movie takes these personalities without putting them on an arc. Instead, the plot unfolds in a hit-or-miss display of set ups and punchlines that occasionally speak to the times. The mention of CNN, rattlesnake-handling evangelists, communism, and Al-Qaeda are put on the page, but not intelligently written. Such topics are inevitable to a film called “The Campaign”, but the references are pretty rudimentary. These aren’t witticisms that take American politics by the throat, but slap it flimsily on the head.
The movie is directed by Jay Roach, who did two very good political dramas called Recount and Game Change. Those films brought tremendous sympathy to politicians many have long scorned (Sarah Palin, George Bush, John McCain). Roach’s liberal tendencies don’t transfer into The Campaign and instead the film plays safe in the middle. But the key to the Ferrel-Galifianakis duo is that their characters are so equally oddball and incompetent that it is impossible to predict the outcome. There is, therefore, joy in watching them trade one-liners and sly shenanigans.
Much of The Campaign entertained me and kept me occupied, but overall I found the film too thin. The third act drags and the conclusion feels particularly unearned. Sentimentality makes an appearance when the whole film seems to discourage it. This is a film about schtick not story and set ups over actual scenes. The abrupt turn into the heartfelt is not only contrived, but unfit for the enduringly nasty sphere of politics. And so we are left with smiles and a few titters, but subsequently aware of this awful truth: The Campaign panders more to the public than congressmen do themselves.