Now that we've come to the end of the 2012 election cycle, it's as good a time as any to look back at The Campaign, a mostly funny, sometimes amusing, but ultimately toothless critique of our current political system. Don't get me wrong about whether The Campaign is funny: you will laugh, and at times loudly, but it aspires to be more than that, and I'm not convinced it succeeds.
Democratic Congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is preparing to run for his fifth (unopposed) term for North Carolina's (nonexistent) 14th District when the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) decide they need someone to run against him. The Motch brothers want to in-source Chinese labor for sweatshops in NC, so they turn to the man-child son of Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox), Marty (Zach Galifianakis). Marty runs the tourism center in the small town Brady's 14th District represents* and is, at best, as clueless as he is spineless - in other words, the perfect puppet for the Motch brothers.
Seth Galifianakis). The Campaign brings together both styles and the middle of the movie is basically a game of one-upsmanship, and is fitfully amusing. I probably don't need to explain why Huggins' nickname in school was "tickleshits," but if that made you chuckle even slightly, I suspect you'll laugh during the film. You've probably seen the part of the trailer when Cam Brady punches a baby, which you'd think director Jay Roach (Austin Powers) would merely suggest, but no - we get a full on, Neo-punching-Agent-Smith, slow motion baby punch shot. And yes, perhaps shamefully, the Cap'n laughed.
In truth, while I enjoyed both Galifianakis and Ferrell - who is playing more John Edwards than George W. - The Campaign's best roles go to Huggins and Brady's campaign managers, played by Dylan McDermott and Jason Sudeikis.While Sudeikis, as Mitch, is mostly reacting to Brady systematically dismantling his own election, McDermott rolls in like a tornado and reorganizes every aspect of Huggins life to make him more palatable for voters, down to the dogs he owns. While the familiarity of The Campaign's leads provide appropriate schtick, the supporting roles make more of a lasting impression.
As to the thinly disguised Koch brother surrogates or the even less veiled political commentary about money corrupting elections to further corporate agendas, well, it's there. Roach and screenwriters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell never seem to figure out what to do with the "message" of the film, and the ending is basically a mea culpa, a watered down Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moral stand that sends the film out with a whimper. I don't really know that The Campaign needed to explicitly state its message beyond lampooning how ridiculous the current political system is, but it did. The result is a comedy that's fitfully amusing most of the time but that overreaches as it winds down, probably not to its benefit.
Since the election's done and hopefully most of the vitriol will have faded from your memory by the time you see The Campaign, it might be a little more palatable, and the film would make for a fine rental if you're looking for a comedy where you know basically what to expect. You'll get that, as long as you don't mind a small lecture near the end. There are plenty of dirty jokes along the way, so that has to count for something, right?
* According to IMDB, The Campaign was filmed in New Orleans, so it's hard to say which North Carolina town it's supposed to be subbing for. Since most of the film's audience doesn't live in the state, it doesn't matter, but the Cap'n - and for that matter, Galifianakis - are a little more familiar with the location, so I thought I'd check.