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The Campaign / **½ (R)Posted Sunday, August 26, 2012, at 9:23 PM
Zach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell make a mockery out of our political system in "The Campaign".
Good comedy is often a balancing act. Being funny isn't just about being funny. The subject matter often defines the parameters of the rules to which the comedy must abide. Perhaps if this weren't an election year the new movie "The Campaign" would just seem like a silly lark. But, considering the current political climate, the stakes are raised when making a comedy about a political campaign.
The movie stars Will Ferrell and Zach Galinfianakis as opposing candidates in a North Carolina Congressional race. Both performers are what might be called "acquired tastes" for mainstream audiences, although each has had a great deal of mainstream success. They're risk-taking comedians. Trying to produce what they think people will enjoy doesn't hold them back. Ferrell just appeared in a Spanish-language comedy called "Casa de mi Padre". Galifianakis's comedy is almost entirely based on making people uncomfortable. They make a good comedy team, but you really can't predict what they'll come up with.
Ferrell plays Representative Cam Brady, a Democrat incumbent running unopposed for the state's 14th District. When Brady's high numbers take an unexpected dip after he leaves a sexually explicit phone call to a mistress at a wrong number, corrupt businessmen the Motch Brothers see an opportunity to get their own candidate in office. Their own man could repeal current labor laws to allow them to move their China-based sweatshops to domestic locations. John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd portray the brothers in full smarminess.
The Motch brothers find a candidate to oppose Brady in the form of Marty Huggins. Galifianakis plays Huggins as an effeminate family man who loves his two pugs and hardly seems to have the claws to tackle politics despite the fact that his father (Brian Cox, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes")--who hates him--had been a very successful campaign manager. The brothers hire tough guy, Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott, "The Practice") to shape Marty's campaign image. Meanwhile, I can't imagine why Cam Brady's poor campaign manager, Mitch (Jason Sudeikis, "SNL"), bothers to stay with that sinking ship.
The comedy consists of much of the one-upmanship you would expect for an affair of this type. Cam teaches Marty a lesson about trash talking in front of a live audience during their first debate. Cam also has fun with Marty's diminutive stature by having him stand at the taller podium. Marty quickly calls Cam to court, though, by pointing out his obvious evasions of the actual questions and issues at stake. As the campaign continues their attacks on each other become more severe and outrageous. Cam eventually ends up seducing Marty's wife and releases the sex tape as a campaign ad. Marty winds up shooting Cam in the leg, a gesture for which he's highly praised. How many of us would like to do that to our representatives?
The problem is that never is there any sense that any of what we're seeing could actually happen. Yes, many of the political talking points are the same one's we hear about on a daily basis. The political catch phrases, like Marty's "Bring your brooms cause it's a mess," ring true to life. However, I never felt that either of these characters could actually exist in our political reality. Both are too brash, too strange, and too willing to show their true colors on a public stage. Sure, it can be funny to show a respected political candidate using explicit language to the degree that Will Ferrell does here, but he does it constantly and publicly, which is something that would never be tolerated in our political system. Nor does he ever really pay any price for it.
Marty is too much of a loser to believe he could become what he does. I like the fact that he was such an earnest person in the beginning. His introduction at a political luncheon that featured a slideshow of goofy family photos was funny. I also enjoyed the evening where his family decides to relive some old times by partaking in some of their favorite activities; but the subplot of Marty becoming obsessed and wrapped up in his own success is too predictable and out of character for it to work in this particular set up. It would've been more effective for Cam to regain his credibility by cruelly destroying Marty's with exploitative material ridiculing his lifestyle instead of continuing with his silly moronic behavior.
Director Jay Roach had graduated from the spy spoof "Austin Powers" movies to direct a couple of good reality based political dramas for HBO, "Recount" and "Game Change". I would've expected a more biting political satire than what he's produced here. It seems he's reverted back to his former silliness. To be sure there are some funny moments to be found in "The Campaign". Much like our political candidates it makes fun of, however, it doesn't always strive to be everything it can be.
"The Campaign" is currently playing at Marshall Cinema and Galaxy Cinema in Sedalia.
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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.