I laughed a lot during The Campaign and that’s all that really matters. It tackles more than you might expect from an August comedy, then stumbles in its efforts to really drive its point home. But it scores some priceless moments in the process, and with Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis leading the way, you can be assured of spewing soda out of your nose at least three or four times.
The pity is that it can’t do more than that, because it clearly wants to. Our cynical political times have produced a number of acerbic takes on what we laughingly refer to as “the democratic process,” from shows like Veep and Political Animals to films like The Ides of March. The Campaign endeavors to join their ranks, and from time to time scores a real bullseye. But its inherent darkness clashes badly with the needs of a mainstream comedy, demanding a neat resolution where more pessimism is required. It turns a satire of Bulworth potential into a mere summer gigglefest: funny, but not nearly as biting as it could be.
None of that matters when the two leads get their mojo working. Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a randy Congressman running unopposed for his fifth term. Galifianakis plays Marty Huggins, a good-hearted oddball thrown into the race when a naughty phone call lands the previously unstoppable Brady in hot water with the voters. The proverbial wacky mayhem ensues.
The straightforward scenario keeps the humor razor-sharp, with the two actors doing what they do best and various supporting actors landing effortlessly solid blows. Chief among them are Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, playing barely disguised versions of the Koch brothers. The best moment, however, goes to Karen Maruyama, whose shtick had me gasping for air on the theater floor before The Campaign replays it a few times too many.
Director Jay Roach refuses to quit on many of his concepts, a sign of desperation for many comedies. Here, however, it results in payoff after payoff, as seemingly innocuous near-misses morph into outrageous guffaws over and over again. The Campaign also walks a tricky balance between political relevance and universal appeal. It specifies the candidates’ political affiliations (Ferrell’s the Democrat, Galifianakis the Republican), but it hardly matters. As the film adroitly points out, both sides dance to the tune of big money, and their various positions serve as mere distractions for the real problems that their puppetmaster have no interest in solving. The target is the system itself rather than liberals or conservatives, a choice that helps the film resonate across red state and blue alike.
You can see it best in the leads. Farrell, so well-known for his George Bush impression, adroitly channel’s Bill Clinton’s wandering eye… as well has his penchant for preposterous excuses. Galifianakis is much sweeter: a kindly square peg forced to transform into a soulless drone for the sake of victory. He carries the dreadful cost of politics on his shoulders, and for a time even finds some real tragedy in his character’s situation.
Would that The Campaign could capture that feeling for the whole of its running time. Unfortunately, it runs into a serious problem towards the end, when the need to follow through with its dark focus versus the desire to leave us with a smile on our faces. As the big election looms and he needs to wrap things up, Roach ultimately loses his nerve. He opts for climactic confessions and the easy punishment of wrongdoers rather than going for the throat the way he really should.
That doesn’t matter with a film this funny. We watch, we laugh, and if it runs a bit too long for comfort (even at a spare 85 minutes), what of it? In the dregs of August, we ask only for a little entertainment, which The Campaign delivers in spades. Indeed, with the presidential campaign in high gear, it can help us endure the ridiculous gaffes, the mudslinging and the other attendant insanity with a little more grace. But it had something more in its hands. As a filmmaker, Roach has matured with some sharp looks at our political situation (the HBO movies Game Change and Recount are both his), and he could have brought more of that insight to this project. We’ll take what he gives us here; we only wish he could have given us a little more.