Why should all the fun of a roman à clef be restricted to those people who can pronounce the phrase? Why should political wonks be the only ones to enjoy movies about politics? Those seem to be the questions motivating The Campaign. And while it scrapes the bottom of each of its stars’ respective barrels, it still comes up with more laughs than groans.
Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is the four-term Democratic congressman from North Carolina’s fictional 14th congressional district. And despite being a complete joke, he’s running unopposed for his fifth term. That is, until two billionaire industrialists — the “Motch” brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) — need a puppet representative to help push through their radically regressive guttings of labor regulations.
The Motches see a weakness in Brady, and they decide to oust him. They pick Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) as their man, throwing millions into his election effort and enlisting Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) as a shark of a campaign manager. And they do all this despite Huggins being pretty weird, since when has weird stopped them from propping up a politician?
The campaign, of course, goes ludicrously negative almost immediately, and the bulk of the movie consists of one excuse after another for Ferrell and Galifianakis to do their respective bits. The humor runs the gamut from low- to lower-middle-brow, and occasionally peeks up into the full-on middlebrow range; there’s a lot of throwing things against the wall just to see what sticks.
And, surprisingly, a fair bit of it does. The vague platitudes the candidates mouth in the debates work because we’ve heard pretty much the same things before — maybe not from every politician, but from enough that the joke starts hitting close to home. The slapstick scandals do delve into dick-and-fart territory, but then there’s Ferrell’s bravura performance when he gets stopped for drunk driving.
But as good as the two leads get, they’re pretty much just doing what they usually do. And while it’s a little interesting to see how they stack up against each other, what we’re dealing with is two comics with little contrast between them. The only true straight-man in sight is Cam’s long-time campaign manager (Jason Sudeikis); he and Cam have some really great interactions. Galifianakis and McDermott play off of each other pretty well, too, though McDermott generally seems to get the better end of the deal.
Even though the saturation gets turned up to garish extremes, it’s their absurdity that lets us giggle through the fact that, at heart, The Campaign is more true than we might like to admit. Sure, we say “Motch” instead of “Koch”, but we all know that the influence of big money on politics and policy is very real.
Or do we all? Maybe there’s a huge number of Americans out there who have never really paid attention to this sort of thing. All the critical acclamations and Emmy wins director Jay Roach pulls in for the likes of Recount or Game Change don’t amount to anything if nobody watches them. Wrapping the message up in Ferrell’s and Galifianakis’ humor may be what it takes to get the medicine to go down.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.