Director Jay Roach, the man in charge of The Campaign, is no stranger to politics or making movies about politicians. Earlier this year, his made-for-HBO film Game Change, based on a best-selling book about the failed John McCain-Sarah Palin presidential campaign of 2008, garnered nationwide praise and a host of award nominations. including ones for Roach’s direction and Julianne Moore’s portrayal of then-Governor Palin.
Back in 2008, he helmed another film based on real-life politics, Recount, which won him an Emmy for Outstanding direction in a made-for-television film or miniseries. The man clearly knows how to present stories of modern-day political wrangling in a way that’s clear, understandable, and enjoyable to audiences without resorting to dumbing down the intricacies of the real-life events or pandering to public biases and preferences.
So the question is: Why on Earth would a director who clearly cares about politics and knows how to tell stories about politics in an effective, mature way agree to direct a film from a script dripping with cynicism and packed full of easy jokes and lazy writing that renders each of the characters as one-note, paper-thin stereotypes that feed into popular perceptions of what politicians really are? Hopefully it wasn’t just for the paycheck.
In The Campaign, Democratic Congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) from the 19th district of North Carolina is out on the re-election trail, shaking hands, kissing babies, and schmoozing with voters who really have no choice in re-electing him, because he’s running unopposed. Everything goes according to plan until a sex scandal (of course) sends his approval ratings into a tailspin, causing the state’s corporate bigwigs, the Motch Brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), to throw their financial weight behind a rival candidate who will be easier to control.
Their choice is the naive, uninformed, and slightly effeminate Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), who blithely prances around town on his tippy-toes, gives tours from the local Tourism Center that no one buys tickets for, and has no idea why he’s been a constant source of exasperation for his retired political power-broker dad, played by Brian Cox.
To help Marty win against the far-more-experienced Brady, The Motch Brothers send a cutthroat political strategist (Dylan McDermott) to whip Marty into fighting shape by stripping away his bizarre mannerisms and his idealism in order to turn him into a candidate that will appeal to his district’s voters. “My job is to make you not suck,” McDermott’s Tim Wattley says, and he does that job by redecorating Marty’s house with paintings of bald eagles, making his wife cut her hair Katie Couric-style, and replacing his beloved pugs with more “American” dogs, because pugs originally came from China and therefore MUST be communist.
What follows is a campaign battle so absurd and over-the-top that you can’t help but laugh; indeed, the movie really is hilarious for a good part of its first hour because the gags are so crude and outrageous. From a town hall-style debate turned into a screaming match over a picture book called “Rainbowland” written by one of the candidates when they were in the second grade to a campaign ad made from a sex video filmed on a smartphone, it’s all broad farce that’s sure to please an election year audience already fed to the point of illness a steady diet of real-life mudslinging, personal attacks, and quotations taken out of context. It’s ironic in a way: the movie mines its humor by lampooning politicians who pander to and manipulate the masses and the media, but it gets its message across by itself pandering to the expectations of the masses.
As for the cast, they all throw themselves wholly into the material and look like they’re having a grand old time. Ferrell blends together bits of his Ricky Bobby and Ron Burgundy personas to give us Cam Brady, who’s grown to feel entitled to his life and his position and is insulted to even have to compete against a milquetoast like Marty. Thus, when the race turns against him as he commits gaffe after public gaffe, his frustration results in wackier and wackier behavior. The bit where he gets pulled over for a DUI is one of the funniest gags in the whole film.
In contrast, Galifianakis also falls back on mannerisms and gimmicks he’s used before — think Dinner For Schmucks, also a Jay Roach film — but as the ostensible “heart” of this film, he plays Marty as “lovably odd”, if you can imagine that. He’s the town oddball, no doubt, but the folks of Hammond, N.C. seem to like him for it rather than eying him suspiciously and giving him a wide berth. Thus, you’re supposed to feel more sympathy for him as he’s temporarily transformed by the campaign into something more sinister and cutthroat, only to find his way back to himself by the end.
Sound artificial and cliché? Oh, it is, and that perhaps is the biggest indicator of the lazy writing. It feels as though in the midst of gleefully tearing into these characters and the conditions in American politics that allow for such people and situations to even be credible, screenwriters Shawn Harwell and Chris Henchy (Eastbound & Down) suddenly decided, “Yeah, we’ve put enough into this. We can just coast to the end now.” Or worse, they realized, “Hey, we need to hit the brakes and give this thing a happy ending!” The result is a third act that’s generally devoid of gags and feels forced, making the whole effort ultimately a letdown as a piece of relevant satire. Because as much as that first hour might look like the film is tacking American politics in all its absurdity and madness, the redemptive ending certainly doesn’t.
Score: 2.5 out of 5
Starring Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Dylan McDermott, Katherine LaNasa, Dan Aykroyd, and John Lithgow. Directed by Jay Roach.
Running Time: 85 minutes
Rated R for crude sexual content, language and brief nudity.