Comedy is a matter of personal taste. What a person finds humorous can be subject to such fickle details as who you are with1, how you slept the night before or even the time of day. Whether you will enjoy “The Campaign” will depend foremost on whether you are a fan of Will Ferrell's past endeavors, which we happen to be, but also on the circumstances of your viewing.
In comedies, plot can take a back seat and serve more as a vehicle for gags rather than a lynchpin of a film's success. Here, director Jay Roach examines corruption in politics and moral bankruptcy in politicians. Roach brings a multifaceted perspective to the table with his background in both comedic and political films2. In our opinion, this is his best comedy to date.
Ferrell movies aim for that deep belly chuckle, the kind of laughter that can lead to babbling and uncontrollable snorting. It is a particular brand of potty humor with the ability to transport you back to late-night, soda-filled, childhood-sleepover hysteria.
So, for us, the problem with “The Campaign” isn't the boorish, juvenile humor, instead the shortcoming of the film is its categorical identity crisis, its genre split personality disorder. After hitting the ground running as a crass, very deservedly R-rated slapstick, the film begins to have trouble deciding whether it wants to be goofball or satirical.
Campaigning in America has gotten so ridiculous that it is difficult to create any fiction that can be stranger than the truth. Take, for example, Eliot Spitzer and John Edward's trysts, Larry Craig's wide stance or Anthony Weiner's telecommunications (all of which are alluded to in the movie). It's hard to really satirize something that's almost an unaware self parody.
Where this film succeeds is in the insane on-screen chemistry of Ferrell and once alternative stand-up comic Zach Galifianakis. They are the kings of portraying the ridiculous amidst the plausible. Ferrell is comfortable in his role as Cam Brady, a four-time incumbent lazily awaiting a shot at the vice presidency. The character of Brady seems to be a SNL George Bush redux with a “Talladega Nights” home life and an “Anchorman” sex life. Galifianakis plays the challenger, Martin Huggins, a pervasively effeminate continuation of his “Funny or Die” character 'Seth'. Huggins is childlike for the most part but is also conveniently ruthless as the debates get progressively more caustic and the backstabbing more pronounced as election day nears. The movie also takes aim at voters who seem to easily and blindly fall for flimsy defamation attempts. Something to keep in mind this November.
Neither candidate stands for anything of course. Brady gets along by riling up voters with emotive catch phrases, and Huggins is mostly along for the ride as he follows the instructions of his power-brokering father played by Brian Cox and by his Faustian campaign manager played in all-black attire by Dylan McDermott. Dan Akroyd and John Lithgow also pop up as the villains in roles reminiscent of Randolf and Mortimer Duke from “Trading Places.” They end up coming off flat and probably deserved better characters to start with. If only they had funny lines. There the blame lies with writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell. Jason Sudeikis also phones in an appearance as Brady's campaign manager Mitch, the straight man of this comedy outfit.
This movie starts stronger than it finishes. For a short film (runtime 85 minutes) it sadly needed more material to draw on. The first half of the film is chock-full of outrageous behavior but somewhere along the way the steam runs out and it finishes on an empty note. The latter portions are consistently funny but almost never hilarious as it becomes canned political cynicism. Going after the superficial, sleazy nature of campaigns isn't very daring and simply affirms what the average politically jaded person already suspects.
Also, the film is episodic, more of a series of rapidly escalating raunchy hijinks than a single thread of a story. That being said, we did enjoy this film since our goal was only to get a few laughs. We hope Ferrell and Galifianakis collaborate again soon. Be warned though, there is a shock factor to this movie. Pornographic television spots involving icy pops make it onto the screen. Thankfully the handlebar mustache did not.
So before you decide to see this ask yourself this: would you enjoy watching sailors having a swearing contest?
Rating: $$$ out of $$$$$ - Worth renting as a new release -- get the director's cut for the scenes from the previews that were not in the final cut.
1 Shout outs to the Sunday, Aug. 12 4:50 p.m. audience at the Broadway 8!
2 While Roach is of “Austin Powers” notoriety, he also has directed some solid HBO docudramas such as “Recount” (about the 2000 election Florida debacle) and “Game Change” (about the Palin-McCain ticket phenomenon).