Wednesday, August 15, 2012

THE CAMPAIGN Is Funny But Lightweight Political Humor


- The Campaign is a really funny flick, but it's also a little frustrating. The movie has plenty of big laughs, and Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis are reliably hilarious. So why that frustration? Only because the movie seems to really want to be a biting satire of American politics, and it has moments that give us a glimpse of the sort of movie this could have been if it went just a bit darker and edgier. Most of the time though, the film is content to just be over-the-top and broad. That leads to some memorable gags, but it also makes the movie feel like empty calories when it might have had a little more meat. Earlier this year, I thought The Dictator was an underrated, fairly scathing satire that really nailed the balance between crazy comedy and on-point social commentary. This one feels a little tamer and a little more pandering to the cheap seats.

In THE CAMPAIGN, Ferrell plays Cam Brady - who is essentially Ron Bergundy meets Jon Edwards. Brady is a multi-term congressman who keeps winning elections despite his reputation for being a womanizing, bribe-taking, double-talking sleazeball. He's a local institution, and people tend to forgive him his sins because, hey, he's a consummate politician and talks a good game. Plus, there's the convenient fact that he's long run unopposed in his district. That changes when the wealthy Motch Brothers (obvious analogs for the Koch Brothers) decide to find themselves a puppet candidate to usurp Brady. They want someone who will carry out their money-grabbing plan to essentially sell off the district's land to the Chinese, making it ground zero for cheap labor and outsourced industry. To do their bidding, they select Marty Huggins. Marty comes from a prominent and wealthy local family - his father is a longtime associate of the Motch's. But Marty himself, as played by Galifianakis, is a total oddball - Ned Flanders meets Richard Simmons meets that one weird uncle you have. Huggins is a local boy who actually grew up with Brady, and he loves his home - so much so that his day job is working as a local tour guide. In any case, Huggins sees the Motch Brothers' offer as the opportunity to finally do his family proud and make something of himself (see: the plot of Chris Farley classic Black Sheep) - and he's too naive to understand the extent to which he's being manipulated by the businessmen brothers. Soon, Brady and Huggins are in a knock-down, dragout political battle, with Brady having to dig dep into his bag of dirty tricks, and Huggins being forced to go on the attack and match Brady at his own game.

Ferrell and Galifianakis are both in fine form here. While Ferrell's character resembles others he's played before (in addition to Ron Bergundy, I also saw a lot of Ashley Schafer from Eastbound and Down), he's so good at playing these sort of gassed-up egomaniac blowhard types that you can't fault him for going back to that well. But Ferrell's line-delivery, done in a John Edwards-esque drawl, is spot-on. Galifianakis gives Huggins an effeminate demeanor and a Sunday School teacher disposition, and he too is very, very funny here. Huggins is certainly the more multidimensional of the two characters, and Galifianakis does a nice job of making him more than just a simple goofball.

The supporting cast is also filled with A-list comedic talents. John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd play the Motch Brothers. Sarah Baker is hilarious and a huge scene-stealer as Marty's wife Mitzy. Brian Cox is always great, and he is great again here as Marty's gruff father. Dylan McDermot is quite good as the Motch's go-to hatchet man, who is brought in to run Marty's campaign and give him am image and lifestyle makeover. Jason Sudeikis pops up as Cam's right-hand man. And Jack McBrayer has a small but memorable cameo. Still, so much of the focus is on Cam and Marty that it does occasionally feel like supporting players get the short shrift. In particular, was hoping for some more great lines or moments from Lithgow and Aykroyd.

It's funny though, because while the movie's political satire feels a bit soft, it hits a homerun when it comes to pushing the envelope of shock humor. The movie's best and funniest scenes are when it goes blue, eliciting huge belly laughs from the perverse lengths it goes to comedically. Thought the dinner table scene in Talladega Nights was uproarious? Wait until you see the dinner table scenes in this one. Similarly, a raunchy campaign ad created by Cam Brady is a highlight - if only for how far it goes down the proverbial rabbit hole. Huge props go to Sarah Baker as Mitzi, as well as to the child actors who play Marty's kids, for delivering some particularly eye-popping lines with brilliant commitment and sincerity.

The movie starts out with a ton of momentum, and it continues to get big laughs as it enters into its second act. In turn, as we see Marty evolve his image, and Brady try to turn negative PR into a positive, we get some moments of genuinely funny and sharp political satire. As the film goes on though, I felt it lost some steam, especially as it started to become mired in cliches and multiple "big, inspirational speech" moments. Ultimately, the wind seems to have gone out of the sales a bit by the time we get to the closing credits. At first, the fact that neither Marty nor Cam knows a thing about actual politics is funny and part of the move's overarching joke. But eventually it wears thing, because it feels like a convenient way for the movie's comedy to avoid tackling any issues of substance. It makes the movie - as opposed to the Dictator, for example - feel a bit lightweight. Like everyone involved agreed that politicians were a ripe target for comedy, but couldn't figure out why, exactly, beyond the fact that politics tends to be more about style than substance.

The Campaign may not be brilliant satire, but it is plenty funny, and like I said, it's got some awesome gags that are more than watercooler-worthy. This is another solid entry in the Ferrell canon - but given the more pointed politcal stuff he's done (his George W. Bush parodies, for one), I was hoping for something with a bit more to say.

My Grade: B

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