The political campaign system in America has done a good enough job making a joke of itself that “The Campaign” as an idea for a comedy either seems redundant — or perfect. With contemporary comedy staple Will Ferrell going toe-to-toe for the first time with fast-rising star Zach Galifianakis, there is no cap on the potential for hijinks both absurd and sharp.
Although director Jay Roach has ample experience making films that deal with political figures and subject matters, “The Campaign” leans toward the absurd anyway. The film consists of a series of rapidly (and ridiculously) escalating tactics between two candidates running for a North Carolina U.S. congressional seat.
Ferrell stars as the incumbent, Cam Brady, who embodies all the superficial fluff of a Southern politician, focused on keeping up appearances and championing his three main platform points: America, Jesus and freedom. Galifianakis plays Marty Huggins, a blissfully quirky local tour guide and child of politics convinced to run for office in the interest of the wealthy and influential Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), who unbeknownst to anyone intend to build a massive Chinese factory in the district.
“The Campaign” is not shy about making its jab at the corporate interest-driven nature of the political machine. Chris Henchy (“The Other Guys”) and Shawn Harwell’s (“Eastbound & Down”) script goes for the over-the-top, exaggerated approach to satire, imagining how far two candidates would go to sabotage each other.
To be fair, “The Campaign” establishes that it’s not going to play by normal rules early on, in fact as early as an opening quote from Ross Perot saying politics “has no rules.” The whole story is also set in motion after Brady leaves a salacious and vivid voicemail on the answering machine of a young Christian family, a call intended for his mistress.
In the real world, that would destroy any campaign, but this is just the starting point for Brady. Later on, for example, but still early in the film, he outdoes Anthony Weiner and Tweets his mistress a picture of his genitals with his pubic hair groomed into a handlebar mustache (we are spared the visual).
The film paints Huggins as the underdog you’ll want to root for, at least in the beginning. When he agrees to run, he immediately finds Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott, not Bryan Cranston’s character on “Seinfeld”) in his house ready to run his campaign, starting with fixing his weak image. For starters, he must get rid of Muffins and Pound Cake, his “Chinese” pugs. Ultimately, it’s Wattley who pushes Huggins to play foul.
Huggins and Brady exchange blows in what feels like a collection of “what are the worst things you could do while running for office?” scenarios: adultery, punching babies, drunk driving — you name it. The script assumes that the obvious end goal of winning the election is enough to keep the stakes high, but that’s not entirely true.
Still, Galifianakis and Ferrell are in top form, and the gags themselves boast a certain degree of cleverness. The political campaign context helps keep most everything fresh and original — there’s no pain induced by feeble attempts at scoring laughs.
As for being a smart satire, those thoughts are definitely built into the script, but “The Campaign” ends up too far-fetched to be taken seriously in that regard. It has been so far loosed from reality, and even then, choosing to go after the manufactured, aesthetics-driven nature of political campaigns isn’t exactly making a bold statement. Rather, it affirms the average politically jaded person’s observations on the whole process.
Revelatory socio-political commentary, however, should not be on the list of expectations for an R-rated comedy starring these two buffoons. The degree of absurdity is welcome, even if it ultimately weakens the film’s attempt at catharsis as Brady and Huggins stare down their various moral indiscretions and must make some important choices.
Countering that, however, are enough personal moments littered throughout to give these characters some sense of humanity. They are somehow grounded enough, in spite of their actions, and are likable the more you can detach who they are from what they do.
“The Campaign” succeeds less as a political comedy and more as a comedy that uses politics as its vehicle. It cuts the legs out from under its satire, but delivers on the crazy end of things to a satisfying degree.
Directed by Jay Roach
Written by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell
Starring: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Dylan McDermott