A Red and Blue Arms Race
The opening lines of The Campaign address the ludicrous, simplistic state of political rhetoric. They are a congressman’s talking points that spell out the film’s sardonic thesis statement: “America, Jesus, Freedom,” both a slap at pandering politicians and the dupable American public. But like many high school essays, the remaining paragraphs don’t effectively bolster its honest claim. There are moments of zings and hearty laughs, but in this social commentary, the zings don’t sting nearly enough as they should.
Under director Jay Roach, whose previous political films have included Recount and last year’s Game Change, there is a wealth of information on how dirty politics works. In the latter film, documenting Sarah Palin’s emergence and ultimate fall, Roach found a way to examine how integrity “had” to be sacrificed in order to find a way to win the election. Palin was the far-right sideshow to McCain’s general republican malaise that learned how to hand-feed unexplained phrases like “Maverick” and “Elitist Mainstream Media.” Roach also found a way to examine the disconnect between the viewed and disclosed family realities and the toll the media’s microscopic lens took on their lives.
We find these issues explored in a slapstick, small-town way here, but nothing ever seems that bad. I think part of the problem in a film with the likes of Will Ferrell and Zach Galfianakis is that we are expecting ridiculousness already. Seeing Ferrell blabbering naked and listening to Galfianakis ramble naively about trivial matters have become standard. Playing politicians seems just about right.
The Campaign has it all however, going punch after punch with a baby of course, and throwing sex scandals, dirty ads, and mysterious Super Pac funders into the ring. Ferrell plays Cam Brady, with hair like John Edwards and a conditional wife, like his blonde one in Talladega Nights. He has run unopposed eight times in a row, spewing his patriotic trademarks and religious hyperbole to the small North Carolina town in which he is elected. He is as unaware of the content he spews out as the crowds are who eat them up.
Enter Marty Huggins (Galfianakis), the youngest son of a former politico (Brian Cox) who applies to run against Brady in the coming election. An unassuming town tour guide, he runs as a puppet for rich brother tycoons Glen and Wade Motch (Dan Akroyd and John Lithcow), trying to “insource” foreign jobs by creating large factories in the area to cut shipping costs and double profits. Huggins has two pugs, later interpreted by Brady as “Chinese communist dogs,” a portly wife and two sons (they steal many laughs in a dinner table scene when they reveal some personal secrets).
The Motch brothers accordingly “politician-ize” Huggins with the help of a sly campaign advisor in Tim Wattley, played by Dylan McDermott (not to be confused with Bryan Cranston’s character in Seinfeld). He strips the family of their possessions and installs an Americanized habitat, oil paintings of eagles and the like. Jason Sudeikus plays Brady’s advisor in a thankless role that severely underscores his own comedic talents. He must give way for Cam who begins to play dirty and starts a political game of cat and mouse that escalates with each attack ad and publicity trip.
Adam McKay, a frequent director of Ferrell comedies, is the writer this time, but it appears he relies more on improvisation than sharp, witty dialogue. Will and Zach do their thing but it appears more tired because it is central to the story, not a whimsical supplement.
One of the better scenes, not only because it sparks laughs but because it is brutally realistic, is when Brady is challenged by Huggins to say the Lord’s prayer. Silly because of this country’s religious expectations and because Brady runs his campaign partly on the word “Jesus”, he recites the prayer without even having it memorized. His advisor must then play a game of charades from the back row to spur his memory along. “Aloe Vera be thy name” amongst many other butchered verses both symbolizes the ridiculousness of debates and the timidity to profess the truth to the public.
In fact, most of the film’s comedy comes when characters deny the truth, only because of how obvious the heinous acts they commit really are. Telling the truth to voters seems like a death wish, but in actuality, it appears harmless in the face of smiling behind a façade of lies and corruption. Politics has always been this way, but now more than ever it’s become easier to find the hypocrisy in speeches, the liar amongst the (semi) righteous. These things are so blatant in The Campaign but the audience never rises above. A nonsensical Brady-sponsored attack ad likens his opponent’s facial hair to terrorist groups. “Hey, maybe Huggins’ mustache is a connection to the Taliban!” We keep feeding the fire.
If you’ve seen the trailer, in this case, you’ve seen most of the movie. That’s not necessarily the film’s fault; it’s politicians’ disappointing predictability that make it so.