Review: 'The Campaign' is a Hysterical Distraction from Real Politics
by Jeremy Kirk
August 11, 2012
"War has rules, mud wrestling has rules — politics has no rules." That gem from former candidate Ross Perot strikes the right chord to open The Campaign, a hilarious comedy that makes politics out as having nothing to do with the issues, but is rather a popularity contest. You know, kind of how it actually works. Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis lead with performances we've seen from them before, but they work. Between the outlandishness and the way the comedy begins to edge its way towards something darker, The Campaign is a hysterical film that will be remembered long after this year's presidential loser becomes a Trivial Pursuit answer.
Ferrell stars as Cam Brady, Democratic congressman for North Carolina who, for five terms, has kept his job simply by continuing to run unopposed. Brady doesn't take politics seriously, and only seems to have aspirations in keeping the celebrity status that comes from the position as well as the long-standing, extra-marital affairs he's been partially keeping from his wife. When two billionaire brothers, played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow giving Trading Places' Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy a run for their money, decide they want a congressman in North Carolina they can control, they turn to Marty Huggins, a local tour guide played by Galifianakis. Seeing the opportunity to make serious changes in his state—the way things ought to work—Marty takes the Republican nomination on the ballot, and very soon after the gloves come off in increasingly brutal fashion.
The ridiculousness of the comedy found in The Campaign is fairly evident early on. Jay Roach has dipped his directorial hand into films about real-life politics like Recount and Game Change, but this is still the man who brought us both the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents series. Writers Chris Henchy & Shawn Harwell have worked hard to pump the film full of jokes, not to mention all the assumed improvising coming from much of the film's cast. The jokes are steady, evenly paced, without much lag between or even many that fall flat. The humor in The Campaign is much the variety found in most Will Ferrell movies, just on the outskirts of real-life believability, but the absurdity never falls off into Austin Powers territory. Most of the comedy comes from things or events we could see in the real world but probably never have.
The jabs between the two, political nominees are verbal at first with Brady putting down the puerile Huggins with constant, mean-spirited dissing. Even the debates between the two quickly slip away from the issues at hand and what is good for the people of North Carolina and turns into a battle to see who can put the other candidate down harder. About the moment Brady takes a swing at Huggins and accidentally decks a toddler is when The Campaign takes its determined turn into darker areas. It never goes black. The film wears its R-rating proudly, but it seems there were directions Roach and his screenwriters didn't care to take with the film. It's appreciated even with Dylan McDermott playing Huggins' campaign manager and coming off like a creepy hitman who is mere seconds from killing someone. McDermott is one of the funnier aspects to the film, appearing to people in the most obscure places just to give them information and playing the part with all the sincerity of a surgeon.
The leads, though, still take on a fair share of the humor, and they do so with solid results. This is definitely Ferrell playing the typical, political type we've seen him play a hundred times on "Saturday Night Live." This is also Galifianakis playing the typical, effeminate, and clueless type we've seen him play a few times in recent films. These are both turns we've since become tired with in regards to these two actors, so the hurdle they have to get over in order to make the audience laugh seems that much higher. Fortunately, their roles and the way they choose to play them work well here, Ferrell's being the more obvious of the two. He brings a crassness to Brady, though, the kind of vulgarity you expect most politicians take on when they're behind closed doors instead of in front of a podium. Not something he could have shown us on "SNL."
Galifianakis' turn, on the other hand, is more developed, since Marty Huggins really is the protagonist here. He starts out like most Galifianakis characters, oblivious to much of the world going on around him but just savvy enough to get by. Once the campaign really kicks in and Marty decides he wants to win this thing, he grows into a more serious character, the kind of person who looks more comfortable wearing a suit and firing a rifle than tucking in his t-shirts and walking a couple of pugs. Those are the Huggins' pets, and there are some great, comical moments later in the film when McDermott's advisor forces the nominee to get dogs that are more masculine.
The Campaign hitting during an election year is anything but an accident, and the movie serves as a hysterical diversion from the mud-slinging and constant ads. Those ads all talk about the issues, about how to make America greater and how to keep the people's lives in this country safe and secure. The message in The Campaign is a softball, easily tossed up and hit way the hell out to left field, but message-conscious as he may be, Roach doesn't spend much time and effort making it feel real. What works best in this film is the comedy, and though it isn't on the level of other Jay Roach, Will Ferrell, or even Zach Galifianakis films, The Campaign provides a service of laughter. It'll be a nice channel-change one day when the cheerlessness of real politics grinds life to a halt. We may never get another Ross Perot.
Jeremy's Rating: 8 out of 10