“The Campaign” Brings Modern Insight to a Familiar Story

“The Campaign,” the new election-season comedy starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, does exactly what you expect it to. It delivers big, raunchy laughs, while offering soft satire of the American political system. It is the rare political comedy that will play in both DC and Peoria. The film succeeds the most when it lampoons the absurdity of our campaign season by letting Ferrell and Galifianakis just get weird and silly, but it also contain a thoughtful criticism of campaign finance law.

Ferrell is Cam Brady, a dumb, arrogant four-term Congressman  – to paraphrase Mark Twain, excuse me for repeating myself – running for re-election while battling a dip in popularity due to a recent scandal. Trying to leave a dirty voicemail for his mistress, Brady accidentally dials the home of a conservative Christian family, and the scandal makes national headlines. His financial backers, the shadowy, powerful Motch brothers, see his fading popularity and recruit the son of a long-time state politico to run against him. They need a surrogate in office so that they can bring Chinese workers into the district to double their “already doubled” profits. It takes a mighty strong suspension of disbelief to accept that they choose Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) to be their candidate. Marty, based on an old Galifianakis character he has dubbed the “effeminate racist,” is kind, gentle, very self-conscious, and utterly weird, a polar opposite to the alpha-male Brady. With Marty’s entrance into the race, he and Cam begin a battle of dirty tricks and attack ads that escalates as Election Day draws nearer. Highlights include a baby-punching incident, the first-ever campaign video/sex tape, and a stunningly poor recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

As you can see, the comedy is short on subtlety. In fact, its comedy does not compare to classic political satires like “The Candidate” or “Being There.” Instead, it fits in more closely with Ferrell’s earlier work. With a few exceptions, he has carved out a pretty specific comedic niche, specializing in characters who are big, dumb, and arrogant. One could view the bulk of his career, in fact, as a spoof of the 21st century patriotic, red-blooded American male, an on-the-nose example being his portrayal of former president George W. Bush on both “Saturday Night Live” and in his one-man Broadway show. Cam Brady is cut from the same cloth as Dubya. He campaigns on “America, Jesus, and Freedom,” but Ferrell and director Jay Roach are not interested in simply skewering one political party. In fact, they go to great lengths to ensure the film appears non-partisan. Brady may rely on the political phraseology of the Bush-era Republican, but he is a Democrat and he has the “strong hair” of John Edwards.

Not every joke in “The Campaign” is a winner, but it should be considered a success because it effectively overlays a mostly non-partisan political message onto a commercial comedy template. It gives you what you expect from a Will Ferrell comedy, but the mechanisms of the plot display a real understanding of the problems in Washington. In the film, those problems begin and end with the Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), obvious stand-ins for David and Charles Koch. Although they have very little screentime, these “wealthy industrialists” serve the story in an important way. They are the film’s primary villains, allowing us to sympathize with – if not exactly root for – both Cam and Marty simultaneously. It is far easier to enjoy the film knowing that we don’t have to choose between two immensely likeable performers. But by using corporate power as the driving force behind both Cam’s and Marty’s campaigns, director Jay Roach dramatizes a real criticism of the role money plays in our political system. The movie channels populist rage and general dissatisfaction with government (Marty Huggins’s campaign slogan – “It’s a Mess!” – seems ripped from a Tea Party candidate), but the villainy of the Motch brothers is so large that it lets our politicians off the hook and instead posits that our government is in systemic failure because it is beholden to corporate interests. In “The Campaign,” both Cam Brady and Marty Huggins are patsies; its their corporate underwriters who are the problem. This is not exactly a new insight, but it remains an important one, and it is surprising to find in a summer comedy.

Much of the credit for creating such a successful balance between satire and broad comedy must go to the director. While Ferrell often works with his production partner and fellow SNL alum Adam McKay, he chose Jay Roach to direct “The Campaign.” Roach was a natural choice; he has helmed political dramas like “Game Change” and “Recount” but was also responsible for “Meet the Parents” and the “Austin Powers” trilogy. “The Campaign” is a amalgam of both types of films, fully integrating its comedy with its message. And it’s this kind of movie – a political criticism wrapped up in a dumb comedy – that can have a large impact in shaping cultural values. Amidst the first presidential election since Citizens United, “The Campaign” makes a strong case for campaign finance reform – if you can get past the dick and fart jokes.

My Rating: See it in the Theater

NOTE: My most stringent criticism of the film, which I withheld from my formal review, is that they named a character Tim Wattley. Everybody knows that Tim Wattley is this man.

NOTE #2: Stay tuned next week for a more thorough analysis of the politics in Will Ferrell’s films. 

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