Whether you side with the donkey or the elephant, or you are one of those rare breed of independents that is facing extinction in this increasingly polarized climate, it is impossible not to recognize that the dysfunction amongst our politicians is rife for satire. Sure, it is a bit tragic seeing the state of political affairs, but that just makes it more susceptible to a good attack through humor. And with a film like The Campaign, a film that is entirely set in the world of politics, starring several comediennes who themselves have been known to rip into politicians (think Will Farrell’s numerous Bush impersonations or Jason Sudeikis’ turns as Mitt Romney on SNL), you would expect that level of scathing commentary. On that front, The Campaign fails, but that doesn’t make it a bad film. Just bad satire.
This is not director Jay Roach’s first foray into the realm of politics. In fact, this is not his first political themed film this year – Roach was also behind the lens for the HBO original docudrama Game Change, which offered a less than flattering view of Governor Sarah Palin’s time as a Vice Presidential candidate. Game Change was itself something of a sequel – in an extremely roundabout sort of way – to the 2008 HBO film Recount that Roach also directed, which focused on the 2000 Presidential Election, and was written by Danny Strong who also penned Game Change. Both films were scathing in their indictment of certain aspects of politics. They were unrepentant and drew the ire of those the subject matter attacked. The Campaign, by comparison, is tame and lacks the punch you might expect.
Instead, we are left a film that is set in the world of politics, but not necessarily defined by it. On one hand, you have the baffoonish incumbent Congressman Cam Brady (Ferrell), a four time representative from North Carolina, running unopposed despite a history of adultery and general jackassery. He kisses babies, adds “for the troops” to every speech, and tells each and every voting demographic he meets that they are the backbone of America. Think John Edwards pre-scandal and you have the base for Cam Brady.
When a wrong number turns into a scandal for Brady, the Motch Brothers, played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow (in an obvious allusion to the Koch Brothers) decide they need to buy a Congressperson to help push through favorable legislation to increase their corporate profits, and they see Brady as vulnerable and decide to back a challenger for his seat.
The Brothers look to a political ally, the perpetually drunk, arrogant, and slightly racist Raymond Huggins’ (Brian Cox), who has a son named Marty (Zach Galifianakis) that they determine would be easy enough to manipulate. Marty is good natured and naïve, like a Jimmy Stewart character of old but without the moxy. As a tour guide for his local town of Hammond, he is happy to accept the Motch Brothers’ endorsement and help, which comes in the guise of the cutthroat campaign manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) who immediately goes about transforming the fresh faced candidate into a legitimate challenger. Marty becomes a willing supplicant because more than anything, he wants to make his ambivalent father proud.
Brady soon finds himself facing off against the new and unimproved Marty, and the campaign soon turns ugly. Very, very ugly.
Both Ferrell and Galifianakis dive head first into their roles — Ferrell as the obsessed incumbent that is willing to win at any cost, and Galifianakis as the bumbling do-gooder lured to the dark side of politics. They both are bigger than life, and when they share the screen, which is sadly not often enough, the two play off each other incredibly well. The supporting cast by comparison pales a bit, and the straight-man roles, like that of Brady’s campaign manager Mitch (played pitch perfectly by Jason Sudeikis) tend to fade against the over the top nature of the candidates as their rivalry grows more vicious.
As a pure comedy, The Campaign works. There are several genuinely laugh out loud moments. As a political statement, however, it is somewhat toothless.
It may seem unfair to judge a film on what it doesn’t do, since there is still a funny movie there, but there are several instances when you think the film is going to take on some of the more sensitive political issues of the day, but then backs away. In one scene, Marty’s pugs are featured in a political ad as the announcer declares that pugs are Chinese originally, which spurs a few voters to demand to know why he owns communist dogs. It is over in a second though and never really goes anywhere.
It is moments and jokes like that which suggest that The Campaign is about to go after some controversial subjects, like the current ridiculous rhetoric from both parties that dominates much of the political landscape these days as well as the followers of each side that have political bloodlust in their eyes, but it never really goes far enough. Even the Motch Brothers, who are meant to be a caricature of two real life people, become more parody than satire, as their plans are so ridiculously over the top as to immediately dismiss them both as traditional mustache-twirling villains – something that is further hammered home by their nonsensical conclusion.
There are so many moments that with just a bit of a push The Campaign could have turned into a satirical masterpiece steeped in black comedy. But instead, each time the film veers in that direction it quickly turns back in on itself and instead focuses on the characters of Marty and Brady, who could be plucked out of this movie and put in almost any situation where two competitors faced off.
None of that dooms The Campaign, but it feels like it could have been so much more. If you can go into the film without focusing too much on the politics, or if you are somehow, miraculously not familiar with the nature of politics these days, then none of that will matter. You will be left with a film filled with funny moments that lacks a true message, but still manages to entertain.
[Updated: to fix a typo regarding Will Ferrell’s character name]