A platform without punch
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, August 10, 2012
The excesses of partisan sniping, negative campaigning and pandering skullduggery are the comic equivalent of fish in a barrel, and every last minnow gets picked off in “The Campaign,” in which Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis play North Carolina candidates going head-to-head in a farcically conniving congressional election.
If only because of the actors involved, “The Campaign” has its share of laughs, which in a script penned by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell tends toward the broadest possible takes on slapstick, sophomoric sexuality and post-“Hangover” raunch. The film even possesses a whiff of topicality, in the form of Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow playing two super-wealthy, sweatshop-owning brothers who try to rig the election by infusing a Super PAC with scads of money. Their name: Motch, rhymes with Koch, when Koch rhymes with “scotch,” which they imbibe like so much Coke.
But with the exception of that timely echo -- and Ferrell’s flawless John Edwards impersonation as a handsome, compulsively promiscuous Democratic politician -- genuinely scathing satire is largely missing in “The Campaign,” which prefers silly, outre jokes and sight gags to a truly penetrating critique of partisan politics that has gone hopelessly off the rails.
As “The Campaign” opens, Ferrell’s character, a vapid smoothie named Cam Brady, is preparing to address yet one more adoring crowd of fans. What will he talk about? “America, Jesus, freedom,” his three-word answer to every question.
The Christian right comes in for even more skewering when a local tourism board director named Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) arrives on the scene, having been hand picked by the Motches to challenge Cam in the upcoming election. His suggestively mincing gait, love of pugs and high-pitched lisp notwithstanding, Marty is happily married with two kids, and the Huggins’s devout family dinner hour provides the setting for one of the film’s most over-the-top set pieces, wherein the boys confess anything they might have done that could compromise their father’s run for office. Later, in a debate, he announces his fealty to “the greatest American who ever lived: Jesus Christ.” (You’ve already seen “The Campaign’s” other standout moment, when Cam takes baby-kissing to unexpectedly pugilistic extremes, since that scene has been replayed to death in ads, trailers and clips on the actors’ publicity tour.)
Such are the cheap ’n’ easy shots that comprise most of “The Campaign,” which escalates into an increasingly absurdist war of mutually assured character assassination on the part of Cam and Marty, the latter of whom is being advised by a sharky eminence grise played by Dylan McDermott.
It’s not that there’s no fun to be had in “The Campaign,” and the film can’t be accused of partisan bias: Democrats are as likely to take partisan glee in the film’s depiction of the amoral Motches as Republicans are in Cam’s feckless, self-righteous hypocrisy.
Ferrell -- adding a dash of his beloved George W. Bush imitation when Cam announces, “Schools is this nation’s backbone” -- develops a simpatico rhythm with Galifianakis, as well as with Sarah Baker and Katherine LaNasa, who play the candidates’ wives with appropriate wide-eyed sweetness and snake-eyed ambition, respectively.
Still, there’s no escaping the sense that “The Campaign” missed a chance to be swifter, smarter and more stinging, especially considering that the director, Jay Roach, is the man behind the far more alert and adroitly executed “Recount” and “Game Change” on HBO.
In a way, “The Campaign” is the comic side of the same coin occupied by last year’s “The Ides of March” -- a respectable piece of mainstream entertainment but one that fell short of the insight and ambition required to be a movie that singularly captured its time. Like so many of the seasonal rituals that inspired its title, “The Campaign” could have used some tough reforms before asking filmgoers for their votes.
Contains crude sexual content, profanity and brief nudity.