THE CAMPAIGN (Three Stars)
U.S.: Jay Roach, 2012 (Warner Home Video)
My name is Mike Wilmington, and I approved this review.
Are politicians whores? Are movie comedies whorehouses? Are whores and poets and comedians the great unacknowleged legislators of mankind — and East Canarsie? Then why don’t they all get together and count votes more often?
Jay Roach’s The Campaign , which is just a script or two shy of being a hilarious American political satire, imagines a no-holds-barred North Carolina congressional campaign in which unzipped right wing Democrat Cam Brady ( Will Ferrell) runs against doofus right wing Republican (Zach Galifianakis), and the campaign, fueled by megabucks on both sides — including seemingly limitless G.O.P. funds from billionaire CEO bullyboys The Motch Brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) — descends into an orgy of mudslinging, back-stabbing, cheating, corruption, lying, scandals, ineptitude and stupidity. If I didn‘t see the same kind of stuff all the time on cable TV news (as spun by Fox News on the right, MSNBC on the left, and CNN somewhere in the middle), I‘d have thought they were kidding me.
No, no, I‘m just joshing of course. The real life electoral process, isn’t half as ridiculous and idiotic as what we see in this new comedy by director Roach and writers Chris Henchy (“East Bound and Down”) and Shawn Harwell. But it‘s close. A third as ridiculous, maybe.
What does the movie tell us? Campaigns are multi-million dollar hatchet-jobs. Elections are rigged. The electorate is hoodwinked. Politicians are or can be outrageous liars and corrupt double-dealers and flip-flopping phonies. Billionaire C.E.O.’s buy politicians and Supreme Courts seal the deals. (Motch rhymes with “Koch” after all. Or does “Kock rhyme with coke?)
The Campaign begins with an outrageous gaffe by Will Ferrell’s smiley but too-arrogant Cam Brady, who gets tripped up, sexually by his own cell phone camera, and alienates the Motch Brothers with an embarrassing message. This obscene miscue transforms what would have been a sure, uncontested race for Cam‘s fifth term, dominated by Cam’s sure-fire slogan (“America, Jesus, Freedom”) to a Motch-backed assault by a new candidate hand-picked and financed by the Motches. That Tea Party dark horse is the shy, effeminate, mustached Marty Huggins, who works at the local tourism center, is scorned by his hard-core Republican daddy, Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox, seething as only he can seethe) and has a nice but rather chubby little family, mothered by wifey Mitzi (Sarah Barker) — and the personality of a 40-year-old altar boy who builds model robots on the side.
Marty is humbled. His dad is flabbergasted. Apparently the Motch Brothers feel that their money can buy anything, including congressional districts and part of China — one of whose businesses they want to import to North Carolina. So, to help their schmo of candidate and protect their investment, they send Marty over a dark-hearted super-meanie of a political advisor named Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), who looks (and advises) like Karl Rove disguised as Clive Owen, and shows all the political scruples of Joseph Goebbels on a bad day. Cam’s manager is Mitch, who looks and talks and acts like Jason Sudeikis, and who participates, pantominically, in the movie’s high point, the Lord’s Prayer pizza scene. (See below.)
From then on, Roach and his writers show political campaigns at their nadir, a moral catastrophe turned wild gagfest. The movie achieves perhaps its immoral (if not immortal) climax in the scene where one of the candidates seduces the other‘s wife, and tapes it and uses it in an attack ad. But there‘s a topper: the other candidate/cuckold then shoots his horny opponent point blank with a rifle and gets a bump up in the polls. (Never underestimate the N. R. A.).
Most of the politicians and others whom we see here are venal or addle-brained. (The media people include Chris Matthews, Wolf Blitzer, Joe Scarborough, Ed Schultz, Dennis Miller, and others playing themselves, or reasonable facsimiles.) Most of the campaign is a farce. It’s just a funnier farce than usual, with more expert farceurs. True, in real life, you’d probably never see a major party congressional candidate get away with punching a baby, punching a dog (and no less a dog than the much-loved Uggie, from The Artist), or having sex with his opponent’s wife in a TV attack ad. You’d never see The Koch Brothers called before a Congressional committee by a Republican, like the Motch Brothers are here — unless it was a plot to shake them down for more money.
You probably wouldn’t see a candidate like Marty give up his beloved Chinese pugs (“Commie Dogs,” sneers advisor Wattley), in favor of a more voter-friendly golden retriever and a Labrador. And you’d never see a candidate like Cam stumbling through an improvisation of The Lord‘s Prayer (“Give Us this day our daily…pizza”) or handle snakes (which bite him) just to prove his faith and cadge some votes.
This is a Will Farrell movie after all — and a Zach Galifianakis movie too. And, a lot of the time, it’s a pretty funny one. Not hilarious maybe — because the satire isn’t always as pointed as it could be, and at the end, the movie gets too preoccupied with being likable. The Campaign isn’t completely free of the desire to please or semi-please everybody that same vain aspiration that has sabotaged so many recent would-be political comedies. The movie maybe needs a little Dylan McDermott-as-Machiavelli advice itself. It would be better if it got a little meaner, or stayed a little meaner, at times.
Director Jay Roach has been good at both extremely broad, extremely raunchy satirical comedy (like the Austin Powers movies, with Mike Myers, and Meet the Parents with Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro) and with realistic docudramas about contemporary politics (he was terrific with both Recount, about the Florida Gore/Bush battle, and Game Change, about Sarah Palin). This movie tends to combine his constituencies, and though it’s not completely successful, I like the direction Roach is moving in, and I hope he does more (and better) political comedies, preferably with Will Ferrell.
Most of The Campaign is a riff on the truth, but occasionally it’s a terrific riff, like Ferrell’s gut-busting take on George W. Bush for “Saturday Night Live,“ or on John Edwards here. Too extreme? Well, as someone from Arizona once said: Extremism in the pursuit of comedy is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of laughter is no virtue. Or something like that.