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Review: “The Campaign” has Winning Laughs

Unlike some other political comedies – Chris Rock’s Head of State comes to mind – The Campaign at least identifies the party affiliations of its major players. Never-challenged (except mentally, perhaps) congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is a Democrat, while his opponent, the hand-picked oddball Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) is a Republican. But just to keep things seemingly bipartisan, they’ve been given mix-and-match traits: Ferrell is basically doing his George W, Bush impersonation, but has added the hair fixation and libido of John Edwards (they are running in North Carolina, after all, even though much of the filming was done in Louisiana). Galifianakis, on the other hand, may be playing a guy who’s the less-favored son of an established politician (Brian Cox), but his Huggins is like a redneck’s nightmare caricature of an effeminate pet lover – he’s like the one token out-of-the-closet gay person that a conservative small town will tolerate. Only the movie makes clear he’s not gay.

When it comes to actual politics, The Campaign has only one issue on its mind, that being finance reform. Huggins is brought into the race by the evil Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), who are clearly based on high-rolling Republican donors the Koch brothers, and are only amusing in that their name suggests that screenwriters Shawn Harwell (Eastbound & Down) and Chris Henchy (Land of the Lost) didn’t know that the real-life siblings pronounce their surname to rhyme with “smoke” rather than “scotch.” So even though the ostensible goal here is to satirize the process of campaigning, the worldview does come off more left than right, not just because getting money out of politics is more of a liberal issue, but also in that all of the obligatory talking heads playing themselves are center-to-left save two: comedy-friendly Dennis Miller, and MSNBC’s token righty Joe Scarborough. Will that bother anyone? Probably only the humorless, and they shouldn’t be at a comedy anyhow. (It’s hard to imagine the movie playing well in China, however, which is depicted as a polluted wasteland where small children stir large vats of toxic goop in the service of enriching the Motch brothers.)

Like so many real-life political campaigns, however, the movie isn’t really about any actual aspects of governing. Brady, feeling entitled, immediately smears his opponent with imagined Islamic terror ties while Huggins, naive and driven by the Motches’ scary henchman Tim (Dylan McDermott), attempts trash talk and deftly dodges each time Brady tries to punch him, leading to some unfortunate black eyes for an infant child and Uggie, the dog from The Artist. Both pander to religion without knowing such basics as the Lord’s Prayer or how not to be anti-Semitic.

Most scenes feel like they were improvised, but in a good way, with both stars taking a standard set-up and gradually ratcheting up the absurdity past the point of any reality and into full-blown weird. This is great fun to watch, but when the story later asks that you buy them as real, sympathetic people who just got caught up in larger-than-life events… you can’t. It’s impossible to forget you’re watching fun-house caricatures, and indeed, why would you want to? Moviegoers who like to identify with somebody onscreen, though, may find themselves wishing for a third-party candidate. Hey, maybe this is like real life, after all!

Also on the issue of story – why would the Motch brothers blatantly reveal their evil plot long before the election is over, and well before they would realistically need to? Because we’re at the third-act break, that’s why – the story does not organically support this development nor render it in any way convincing. Again, does that matter? Not really, but what’s the point in bothering with a plot at all if it’s going to be this lazy?

Much of the supplementary humor here comes from semi-expected sources: kids saying surprisingly adult and profane things, adults confessing to fetishes for weird combinations of mundane things, Ferrell losing his shit and/or his shirt and screaming silly stuff in that way we love him to do, Galifianakis saying weird words and being clumsy… you know if you like this stuff or not, and I do. (One possible exception: Galifianakis does not always do it for me, but he does here.) Impressively stealing scenes from the stars is Whose Line Is It Anyway veteran Karen Maruyama, as an Asian housekeeper who is forced by Huggins’ dad to talk like a stereotypical Civil War-era black slave, as well as Sarah Baker, whose emotionally torn performance as Huggins’ put-upon wife makes her the most believable character in the tale. WWE’s The Miz is billed in the end credits, but I’ll be damned if I could spot him, and I’m a guy who owns three Miz T-shirts.

Humor is a tough thing to evaluate – in the spirit of trying not to be excessively negative or tangential (too late on the latter? Maybe), I won’t even begin to discuss the comic actors and/or filmmakers whose careers mystify me. Suffice it to say you could certainly name your own, and it’s easier to recommend a film centered around famous comedians if you can point to some underlying merits the movie would have even if it were cast differently. One can’t really do that in this instance, so as much as it’s a cop-out to say: if you like Ferrell, you’ll like this. And I do.

The Campaign opens today.

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