Review: The Campaign (2012)

The Campaign is half of the film that I wanted it to be. One half is a wicked satire that merciless mocks the polarizing, parade of sound bites that pass for political debate in America today, and at the same time exposes the grim reality that both sides are pretty much in the pocket of international corporate interests. The other half is a typically raunchy Will Ferrell vehicle, with a tacked on ending extolling the virtues of the American political system that could be, if only we could get beyond the mudslinging mess. The second bit rings a bit false after the first half, which is so much more cathartic.

Given director Jay Roach’s pedigree (Austin PowersMeet the Parents) and the imperative to deliver summer laughs, I’m not surprised that the finale of the film doesn’t quite live up to the convictions of the first half. All this said, there are some worthwhile bits here, especially for fans of Will Ferrell’s work with Adam McKay (serving as a producer here).

Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a multiple-term Democratic congressman from Hammond, North Carolina, the state’s 14th district (cue Stephen Colbert’s “Know Your District”). Brady has run unchallenged in the previous elections on a mantra of “America. Jesus. Freedom.” He’s a clueless womanizer, along the lines of previous Ferrell characters such as Ron Burgandy or Ricky Bobby. He doesn’t quite understand his catchphrase, but he knows it works.

After a late-night call to from Brady to his mistress ends up on the answering machine of a shocked family (with 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer as the patriarch), the Motch brothers – a thinly veiled version of the Tea Party funding Koch brothers, played by Dan Ackroyd and John Lithgow – see an opportunity to swing the 14th to support their plan to import Chinese workers to North Carolina’s factories (“insourcing,” they call it). Their proposed candidate to run against Brady is the weirdo son of one of their wealthy friends (Brian Cox) – thus enters the film’s strongest character: Marty Huggins.

Huggins as played by Zach Galifianakas is deeply weird; his sunny disposition does little to assuage his oddness. A native son who works as Hammond’s tour guide operator, Marty is just a bit too strange to be likable, but his heart seems to be in the right place. Galifianakas is remarkably good at inhabiting his character. His talent at creating deeply odd characters goes beyond a schtick; all the little mannerisms are so perfect. Take the way he lifts and tucks his leg when sitting on the couch, like a middle-aged woman getting cozy beside the fire. It’s a small thing, but adds to his disconcerting presence and goes a long way to creating a fully-fledged performance.

As it goes, Marty heeds the Motch brothers call to run for office in an effort to please his father, willing to transform his family and home into whatever his campaign manager, played with deadpan seriousness by Dylan McDermott, desires. McDermott is perfect in the role, nailing the seasoned professional role and never winking at the camera.

The result is a seasoned, if amoral, Brady locking horns with the clueless and weird Huggins’ killer campaign, funded by the Motch brother’s super PAC. The best jokes hit close to the mark, revealing the lack of substance in the current political climate and reveling in the absurdity of the kind of folksy, American flag lapel pin pandering that seems necessary to win elections. Brady and Huggins seem willing to destroy everything they are supposed to stand for in pursuit of victory, punching babies and replacing their beloved pet pugs.

At times the film displays the kind of cynicism one expects of other more serious political dramas, feeding the fears of those disillusioned by politics. Brady isn’t the “good Democrat”; he’s as eager to kowtow to the Motch brother’s money when the opportunity knocks. Huggins may be a well-meaning weirdo, but he still supports a old-fashioned hierarchy of white wealth.

Last fall George Clooney directed the scathing political drama, The Ides of March, which did nothing to paint Washington politics in a good light, portraying both Democrats and Republicans as hopelessly corrupted. Even a popular entertainment such as HBO’s Boardwalk Empire goes some way to deconstruct the myth of a golden age of American politics, giving us at least a hundred years of corrupt senators and an easily manipulated voting system. Satire is at its best when it is unafraid of taking a look in the mirror, and The Campaign is at its best when it shows current politics as a farce, and a deadly one at that.

But in the end the film can’t see past the system it is supposedly critiquing. Compared to the aforementioned films, The Campaign seems to believe that there is nothing inherently broken in the system: we just need to clean it up a bit. That doesn’t follow from where the film starts. And so the film flounders in its upbeat last quarter.

Perhaps the film can be somewhat redeemed by offering a reading “against the grain.” The film can’t maintain its internal coherency since it so solidly sets up Huggins as a fool, but then expects us to embrace his “let’s clean up this mess” point-of-view. Does this mean we are supposed to scoff at the all to easy ending? Who are the real dupes? The audience for this political show?

If you’re looking for one politically charged comedy this summer, see if you can track down The Dictator. Sasha Baron Cohen’s film pulls no punches and never backs down. Galifianakas is very good in the film, butThe Campaign can’t maintain its momentum, and ends up with a very mixed result.

The Campaign (2012)

Directed  by Jay Roach; screenplay by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell; starring Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudekis, Dylan McDermott, Brian Cox, Dan Ackroyd, John Lithgow.

5 out of 10