Rude, rowdy and raunchy,"The Campaign"gleefully skewers the current sad state of American politics. With a target that tempting, it’s not surprising that this cynical and funny film hits more often than it misses.
Starring practiced comics Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as two politicians who do not hesitate to stoop as low as it takes to claim victory, “The Campaign” allows Jay Roach to nicely reconcile the divergent strands of his directing career.
Roach has become known to HBO audiences in recent years as the director of a pair of smart, trenchant political dramas, the Sarah Palin-focused “Game Change” and “Recount,” a look at the Bush-Gore Florida standoff, which won him a directing Emmy.
On the big screen, however, Roach has mostly directed off-the-wall comedies such as the Austin Powers films and “Meet the Parents.” For a man who knows where the political bodies are buried, the chance to combine both his worlds was enticing enough to get him to agree to direct “The Campaign” even before a script was written.
The movie takes as its motto a quote from former presidential candidate Ross Perot, who memorably said, “War has rules, mud wrestling has rules — politics has no rules.” Things have only gotten worse since then.
But while “The Campaign” mercilessly mocks both of its candidates, neither one belongs to an identifiable political party (though an educated guess would locate Ferrell’s Cam Brady as a Blue Dog Democrat while Galifianakis’ Marty Huggins might be a Republican of the tea party persuasion.)
This reluctance to label likely comes from a determination to cast as wide a net as possible in an ecumenical search for box office dollars. But it also points to the film’s serious bipartisan point that unseemly amounts of money are crippling American politics. (The sharply satiric script by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell even references the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.)
Though the big-money interests in this film, the filthy rich Motch brothers (deftly done by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), are obviously inspired by the Republican Koch brothers, the theme of the corrupting a-plague-on-both-your-houses influence of money on politics is a Hollywood staple, going as far back as 1939’s classic"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” if not further.
If Brady, a four-term congressman from North Carolina’s fictional 14th congressional district, had been able to keep it in his pants, there would never have been a campaign for “The Campaign” to focus on.
Smoothly played by Ferrell, Cam Brady has the classic politician’s gift for saying nothing forcefully. He knows his “America, Jesus and Freedom” campaign slogan doesn’t really mean anything, but he also knows it’s effective. Whatever group he is talking to, whether farmers or Filipino Tilt-A-Whirl workers, he makes sure to tell them they’re the backbone of this great nation.
Running unopposed, Brady makes a major gaff when a crude and sexually explicit phone message he left for his mistress gets broadcast to the media.
That emboldens the Motch brothers, with devious economic plans of their own, to run someone against Brady. But pickings are slim in the 14th district, and the best they can come up with is Galifianakis’ wimpy Marty Huggins.
Huggins’ lineage is strong. His father (Brian Cox) is a veteran pol who lives so deep in the past he insists that his Chinese maid, Mrs. Yao (Karen Maruyama), talk like an old retainer from “Gone With the Wind.”
As for the junior Huggins, he’s the runt of the litter, so chronically inept he has trouble using doorknobs. But Huggins does seem happy with his wife and children, his job as tourism director for hometown Hammond, N.C., and his Chinese pugs Poundcake and Muffins.
Huggins is initially such an inept politician that the Motchs send in the Darth Vader of campaign managers, man-in-black Tim Wattley (a convincing Dylan McDermott), to shape up his life. Gone are the Chinese pugs — they make him look like a Communist sympathizer — and up over the fireplace goes a painting of an American eagle. When Wattley tells Huggins, “Your life as you know it is over,” he is speaking the literal truth.
Part of the fun/horror of “The Campaign” is to watch how seamlessly Huggins morphs from wimpy nonentity to take-no-prisoners politician just as willing to do or say anything as his opponent.
The shenanigans both candidates resort to are the heart of the film’s presentation: a sequence involving a baby in the campaign moment from hell is particularly memorable. Both men’s families become fair game as well, and the more despicable each candidate acts the better he does in the pre-election polls.
Yet even as we are mostly laughing at these electoral nightmares, the sobering thought that they’re perilously close to what today’s politicians are actually like is never far away. If laughter is unavoidable, so is the unsettling recognition of our country’s very real democratic plight.
MPAA rating: R for crude sexual content, language and brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: In general release