If there's one place in America that could stand a break from politics, Wisconsin would be it. Most Wisconsinites have probably gained a debilitating gag reflex whenever a politician appears on screen.
Politics-weary audiences, however, need not fear "The Campaign." The R-rated comedy attempts to combine Will Ferrell's overconfident man-child act with a clever political satire. The results end up more satisfying than surely anything that's going to happen this upcoming November.
The famed SNL alum stars as Cam Brady, a smug North Carolina congressman whose usual lock on the position is at risk when he gets caught up in an affair. Two powerful businessmen (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) worry he's not a strong enough candidate to win and be their stooge, so they recruit Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a blundering but earnest local, to campaign against Brady.
Marty starts off innocent, but as the campaign rages on and a shadowy campaign advisor ("American Horror Story"'s Dylan McDermott) comes aboard, he gets dragged into a political fight with Cam that will leave no one unscathed, including wives, sons and any nearby babies.
Ferrell, who took the last two years to attempt some indie films ("Everything Must Go" and the Spanish-language "Casa de mi Padre"), returns back to the goofing around that made him a film star. He reprises several elements of his usual comedic shtick, such as his boyish yelling and requisite shirtless scene. Maybe it's the satirical setting, but the stuff that normally annoys me about his act works in "The Campaign."
It may be because there is an actual person in his portrayal of Cam Brady, instead of a collection of potential catchphrases. Despite his over-the-top brainlessness and oftentimes questionable behavior (i.e. punching babies), he's still somehow kind of sympathetic.
Galifianakis pulls off the same trick. His effeminate voice and mannerisms could've made Marty just a ridiculous cartoon, but he gives the character some soul and emotion. As the decisions get more cutthroat and the political ads crueler, Galifianakis shows his inner conflict. It isn't the people that have gone bad; it's the system.
In case it wasn't obvious, "The Campaign" has no love for the political system. While co-writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell indulge themselves in plenty of mindlessly entertaining idiocy, it's the political satire that constantly hits the funny bone, as well as close to home.
Cam Brady, a North Carolina politician in love with his hair, as well as other women, is unabashedly a play off Senator John Edwards. Huggins' hope to impress his former congressman father with a successful political career sounds vaguely like George W. Bush. The two CEOs hoping to get pay their way into control of the government? The Motch brothers, a less-than-subtle dig at the Koch brothers.
Their debates are embarrassingly accurate as well. At one point, Huggins points out Brady's non-answer ... and proceeds to do the exact same thing. Facial hair is considered a sign of Taliban support. A second-grade project about "Rainbowland," an imaginary land where everything is free, is used to point out a candidate's communist beliefs. It'd be even funnier if similar things weren't mind-numbingly playing out on TV every four years.
Henchy, Harwell and director Jay Roach aren't about to let the audience off the hook either. Each candidate has their die-hard supporters, even when they're provably wrong. Brady's abysmal attempt at the Lord's Prayer manages to get a significant chunk of the crowd to applaud. As the political stunts get more extreme, including a gun shot to the leg, the script makes sure to note that the public reaction has been positive.
Of course, the humor doesn't always work. The film does feel the strain of wanting to be a biting political satire while also meeting the expectations of a typical Will Ferrell mainstream comedy.
It helps to have Roach behind the camera, who has proven his deft hand with both politically focused features ("Recount," "Game Change") and broad comedies like the Austin Powers franchise and "Meet the Parents." Still, the overall ridiculousness nature of "The Campaign" doesn't quite allow it to have the consistent, intelligent edge that other political comedies, such as 2009's brutally incisive and gloriously profane "In the Loop," provide.
"The Campaign"'s bite might not be strong enough to draw blood, but it'll draw plenty of laughs. Plus, it does the impossible: for 90 minutes, it made politics tolerable.
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