There's an old George S. Kaufman quote that goes "Satire is what closes on a Saturday night." The people behind the new political comedy The Campaign are clearly all too aware of the quote, as the movie constantly sets up sharp and interesting things to say about the state of political discourse in our modern times, only to back away at every opportunity in the interest of creating a crowd-pleasing movie. It's hard to blame them, I guess; as the first on-screen collaboration between Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis -- arguably two of the biggest stars in comedy movies working today -- The Campaign doesn't really have the luxury of alienating mainstream audiences. And, yet, the movie had the opportunity to sneak in some real, biting satire with the knowledge that millions of Americans would turn out to see it no matter what. Chalk it up to a missed opportunity.
Ferrell stars as Cam Brady, longtime Democratic congressman for the 14th district in North Carolina. Though he's prone to slick political rhetoric and sleeping around, Brady continues to be re-elected mostly on the basis that he's running unopposed. Enter the Moch Brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), billionaires looking to buy some votes so that they can open a legal sweatshop in the U.S. (to save on shipping costs, of course). The Mochs decide to sponsor their own candidate: Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), the town's tourism director and resident oddball. After hiring a campaign manager (a very funny Dylan McDermott) to reshape Marty into what a political candidate "should" look like, the two enter into an increasingly contentious -- and increasingly ridiculous -- political race that involves everything from hunting accidents to baby punching.
While Ferrell and Galifianakis are both fine and funny enough in their roles, neither is doing anything that far outside their comfort zones. Ferrell is essentially doing another of his overly-confident Southern dopes -- part Ricky Bobby and part George W. Bush. Galifianakis's effeminate, sensitive Marty is basically his "Seth Galifianakis" character. They sell the jokes well enough, but it's the writing (by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell) that gets the laughs. There are good ideas and good jokes in The Campaign, a movie that so badly wants to savagely satirize modern politics and the emptiness of the discourse and rhetoric. When the movie is working that angle, it's at its best. Too often, though, it gets sidelined as a "wacky" character piece, with both Galifianakis and Ferrell doing incredibly broad stuff and trying to mine laughs out of being bigger than everyone else on screen. Even that could co-exist with the political satire. What ultimately shoots The Campaign in the foot, though, is that it can't help but soften. It's 2012, and studios are really only interested in movie characters that are "likable." While it's ok to watch Brady and Huggins do awful things to one another for about 75 minutes, we had better leave the theater feeling all warm and good about the both of them -- even if that means stepping all over the satirical messages of the movie and undercutting everything that was good about. America's political landscape isn't a terrible, superficial, greed-driven place after all. It just needs a couple of good-hearted dudes willing to be sincere. Boo on that.
It's been a disappointing summer for comedy at the movies, and, truth be told, The Campaign is one of the better comedies to come out in months. There are a few big laughs in the movie, and a lot of (depressing) truth, too. That makes it all the more frustrating to watch as director Jay Roach and company burn off the goodwill that the movie has earned in order to manufacture some sort of happy ending. It wants to use the two main characters to illustrate how our system is broken, but it also can't stand thought that we might not love them. It's an election year, and that makes it the perfect time for a political comedy about a childish, hollow campaign that's not too far off from the real thing. The Campaign is almost that movie.
- The Campaign is Rated R for crude sexual content, language and brief nudity.
- Release Date: 8/10/12
- Running Time: 85 minutes
- Studio: Warner Bros.