The Campaign tries to strike a balance between R-rated raunch comedy and political satire and it comes surprisingly close to pulling it off. Ultimately, it’s more about the baby punching and wife-banging, but more than enough of those gags land to make it worth your money and laughter. The satire is more of a pleasing aftertaste to make the movie slightly more than Talladega Nights with voting booths. It’s probably going to prevent the movie from being the massive comedy blockbuster everyone involved hoped would come from combining Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, but that also makes The Campaign a better movie overall. Whether or not a movie with jokes about sucking the filling out of Twinkies will help raise any awareness in voters about easily manipulated campaigns going into an election year is a reasonable question. It seems impossible, yet it’s at least nice to have an R-rated comedy that doesn’t insult your intelligence out there by someone other than Sacha Baron Cohen. Let’s just hope it makes enough money to happen again.
Ferrell stars as a variation on his famous George Bush persona, a perennial congressman so used to winning unopposed that he assumes simply saying the words “freedom” and “Jesus” will get him back into office (in fairness, it’s not a bad tactic). However, the election spiking billionaire Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd playing thinly veiled versions of the Koch brothers) have other plans. They decide to plug millions of dollars into getting their hand-picked good ol’ boy candidate into office to help pass their new “insourcing” program that will bring cheap Chinese labor to the US. The candidate is Marty Huggins, played by Galifianakis doing a variation on his effeminate, absurdly polite, and easily offended southern alter-ego Seth Galifianakis (complete with fannypack). As soon as he faces an opponent, Ferrell launches a smear campaign that kicks off a dirty war of drunken backstabbing, sexually explicit campaign ads, and as the trailers flaunted baby-punching (thankfully the super-slo-mo close-up of said infant taking a fist to the face was saved for the big screen and good lord is it ever a bad taste show-stopper). Galifianakis remains good natured despite the dirty dealings forced upon him by his “man in black” campaign manager (a surprisingly funny Dylan McDermott) and eventually these sorts of movies must end with the better man discovering his conscience.
Ferrell’s built a career on this brand of verbal-diarrhea spouting alpha-male with more confidence than intelligence and delivers the goods as expected. Not required to be the hero for once, he does slide the character past the realm of likability many times and clearly has a blast pushing the asshole button harder than he ever has before. Galifianakis’ alter ego hasn’t really been used outside of his early stand up and TV appearances, so it should be a pleasant surprise for audiences who only know him as “that crazy guy with the beard.” Even though he’s a walking cartoon, there’s something unerringly good natured and sweet about the character that helps give the movie a faint resemblance of a heart once all the bad behavior settles down for a moralizing finale. Other performers like McDermott and Jason Sudeikis get a handful of funny moments to add to the film, but this really is the Ferrell/Galifianakis show from start to finish and they are two performers more than capable of matching each other offensive remark for offensive remark and humiliation for humiliation. Hopefully it won’t be the last time they stage a comedy war because this one is a draw.
Jay Roach directs combining the surreal insanity he brought to the Austin Powers movies with the political frustration he brought to his underrated HBO films Recount and Game Change (let’s forget and forgive the guy for the Fockers franchise for now). He was the right choice for the project because the gentle mockery and exposure of how campaign funding billionaires can easily control elections is important and never ignored. Towards the end, the film can admittedly get a little preachy hammering the point home. There’s nothing subtle about the comedy or commentary in The Campaign, there’s even a line of dialogue that says “Big money is ruining politics in America” and any other point the filmmakers want to impart. However, that kind of sentiment even slipping into a mainstream Hollywood comedy is nice and at least everyone involved wants to say something beyond “Isn’t it funny when grown men act like children and/or swear?” The film tries to be non-partisan about the affair, but I think it’s safe to say what direction everyone involved leans. The Jesus bashing kind of gives it away. I know what you’re thinking right now and yes it is absolutely shocking that a political comedy came out of Hollywood with a liberal bias. Who could have seen that coming and what could possibly happen next?