Silver Screen: The Campaign ***
It shouldn't come as much surprise that The Campaign, which pits Will Ferrell against Zach Galifianakis in a congressional election, is a comedy and not a satire. Ferrell is certainly funny, but his comedy evidences the character-driven whimsicality of improv training. His talent is discovering the likability in oafishness, not piercing hypocrisies. His George W. Bush impression is likely the single most prominent caricature of the former president, and while it hilariously captures Bush's guileless enthusiasm, it doesn't cut too deeply. The Campaign is timely only in its marketing-department-calculated release date near (but not too near!) the 2012 election, and when the movie falters it's specifically because it's aiming at trenchant satire and missing widely.
Cam Brady is a tailor-made Ferrell character, a vacuous, pandering Southern congressman who has repeatedly won his district by running unopposed. He poses for pictures and repeats the words “American, freedom, and Jesus” a lot, and he enjoys the perqs of political office without any of the responsibilities.
But when his carousing draws the ire of billionaire industrialists the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), the One Percent puppetmasters decide to use their money and influence to install a new candidate even more clueless and malleable than Brady. They select Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), a chubby, slightly effeminate man-child of the variety Galifianakis has played in Due Date, Dinner for Schmucks, and The Hangover movies. He works in the tourism department of a small town without any tourism, where he lives with his secretly kinky wife and two oddball children. But thanks to his earnestness, Brady's stupidity, and especially a Machiavellian campaign manager (Dylan McDermott), he actually starts to win, whipping his opponent into a frenzy and turning the campaign to ridiculous new lows.
Nothing The Campaign has to say about the state of modern-day politics is worth mentioning: Politicians are mostly empty suits who focus all their energy on fundraising for the money men who do the real deciding, the insidious nature of the process corrupts even the most well-meaning citizen, voters are forced to choose between two equally incompetent hacks, et cetera. Most of the jokes are based on hoary old tropes like kissing babies; even though that joke is amusingly executed when Brady, in a mishap, accidentally punches a baby instead, it's still a baby-kissing joke. Galifianakis and Ferrell slip comfortably into familiar characters and play well off one another, though, generating enough laughs to reasonably fill the wisely scant eighty-five-minute running time.
Occasionally the film, produced by Ferrell's outspoken liberal partner Adam McKay, tries to cut a little deeper, which only reveals the dullness of the blade. There are a half-dozen unfortunate examples, but the most representative is the generic, toothless sendup of the Motch brothers characters. It's a clear reference to the Koch brothers, the billionaire libertarians who famously financed Scott Walker's gubernatorial campaign, among other dubious causes-- but to what end? Director Jay Roach casts two elder statesmen of comedy in the roles, but Aykroyd and Lithgow might as well be named “evil suit guys.” The veneer of topicality lent to them by the Koch brothers connection is the appearance of satire without any of the substance necessary for incisive political commentary. The Campaign is funny enough, but benignly so. As political satire, it's another also-ran from the same ticket of Man of the Year, Head of State, and Welcome to Mooseport.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.