The Campaign hinges a major political debate on a colorful, crayon-rendered storybook one of its candidates made in elementary school. The argument, and the whole scene, really, doesn’t make much sense, features two of the best comedians working today, elicits a few laughs, and is cut blessedly short before it becomes grating. And that’s basically whole movie, in a rainbow-colored nutshell.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t utterly distracted by Will Ferrell’s continued resemblance to George W. Bush. It’s especially resonant considering that in The Campaign he plays cocky, suited-up political figure Cam Brady, a North Carolina congressman running unopposed for re-election (his catchphrase “America. Jesus. Freedom.” is a pretty on-the-nose descriptor for his character). Ferrell brings the funny, as always – especially when local tour director Marty Huggins contests his seat in the race – but the performance never really feels fresh.
Conversely, the film shows a quite different and fantastically rendered facet of Zach Galifianakis as the lispy, soft-spoken, pug-owning, sweater vest and turtleneck-wearing, off-kilter Huggins – a man who loves his district as much as he loves his “animals wearing human clothing” calendar. He’s catapulted into the race by the calculating billionaire Moch Brothers (John Lithgow as Glenn and Dan Aykroyd as Wade), corporate powerhouses with a dirty plan to dethrone Cam using a naive puppet who’s all too happy to do their bidding. Huggins’ catchphrase turns out to be, “Never say anything bad about the Jews and tell an interesting story,” and that “interesting story” centers on pugs Muffins and Poundcake. You get the idea.
We’re treated to some pretty great one-off scenes of both men with their campaign teams, families, and solo, but the portions where they’re paired up are mostly lacking. We get them during debates, at times resulting in a tussle (or the errant baby punch, as you do), and even in some living room scenarios, but nothing ever quite sticks. With such a slight story, the hook is seeing these two comedians go at it with each other – they never appear completely unbridled, there’s no single satisfactory or memorable Ferrell-on-Galifianakis moment.
The plot alludes to real-life scandals (Anthony Weiner and Goldman Sachs among them), but never really sticks to a political issue or delves into metaphor. This is your basic “polar opposites battling it out for one position” fare, and, while it’s not particularly droll or unintelligent, it seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. By the end, you question what exactly you watched and why. The Campaign isn’t a solely comedic romp or a sizzling political parody; it resides in the gray area between.
Two highlights are Katherine LaNasa and Sarah Baker as Cam and Marty’s wives, respectively, who more than hold their own against their seasoned comedic counterparts. Where some might slink away in the shadow of Ferrell’s improvisational deftness, LaNasa is all fire and wit as his spunky social-climber trophy wife (pretty obvious from the moment she dubs Cam a “dick dragging around a body,” over the dinner table, onward). Conversely, Baker hits the quiet, contemplative notes needed to balance Galifianakis’ offbeat humor, and she’s not afraid to get physical (like, really, really physical) for the cause. The dinner-table scenes between both families are gold – not quite reaching Ricky Bobby levels of infamy, but the cumulative chemistry is certainly one of the film’s strong points.
Second only to its two leads, Dylan McDermott seems to have the most fun as Marty’s slick, calculating Motch Brothers-appointed campaign manager, or as he tells Marty, “I’m here to make you not suck.” Jason Sudeikis plays the corresponding role straight alongside Cam, and clocks in a solid, albeit less memorable, showing. Admittedly, we all love an overtly evil guy, and McDermott fills those Prada shoes nicely. He’s also the butt of one of the film’s funnier jokes, though it’s played as a throwaway – an off-camera exclamation likening him to another actor with a similar name. Lithgow and Aykroyd are fine enough in their few scenes, keeping their menacing corporate agenda on track in foreign factories and wood-paneled back rooms alike. As with every film he’s featured in, The Campaign needs more Brian Cox, who plays Marty’s good ol’ boy father Raymond. His first scene with Marty is hilarious (just go ahead and slap, “You look like Richard Simmons crapped out a Hobbit!” on a t-shirt, already), but he’s basically relegated to scotch-drinking, deer-hunting, trash-talking window treatment in subsequent appearances.
The true savior of director Jay Roach’s film is the editing: Craig Alpert and Jon Poll transformed improvisation scenes and cut them right before they deflated into meandering, stretched-out jokes. Truly, The Campaign feels brilliantly concise, and not just because it clocks in at a gloriously scant 85 minutes; it paces surprisingly fast for something comprised of so much off-the-cuff performance footage. It’s one of those refreshingly self-aware comedic treatments, in that vein, squelching the weak, been-there-done-that story by choosing not to linger on it any longer than necessary.
When all’s said and done, I’m happy not to use Marty’s campaign slogan, “It’s a mess!” to ironic effect when describing The Campaign. While the story doesn’t stretch to enlighten via parody and could’ve used a few more proverbial head-butting scenes between Ferrell and Galifianakis, there are enough laughs and solid performances to appease any fan of the two leads. As Marty laments, “Can’t is the real C-word” – I want to believe The Campaign may eventually live among infamous Ferrell and Galifianakis fare, but I can’t.
The Campaign opens today nationwide.