Recommending The Campaign to audiences is like telling a dirty joke in a crowded room. You nervously hope people will find it as funny as you did, even if the joke in question is cheap, off-color and completely tasteless. Will Ferrell stars as Cam Brady, a dim-witted, womanizing, and utterly insincere democratic candidate running for congress. Brady is a career-politician who enjoys the power and showmanship of stumping for causes more than following through on any of the issues he raises.
On the other hand, Marty Huggins, played by Zach Galifianakis, is a sincere but strange family man who runs against Brady on the republican ticket, despite being entirely out of his league. Huggins is being used as a political puppet by the powerful Motch brothers, played by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd as the same kind of crooked, rich old white men Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche portrayed in Trading Places. Huggins has an unexpected advantage in a shadow figure (played to the hilt with straight faced intensity by Dylan McDermott) who secretly instructs him how to be a fierce, unpredictable and successful opponent.
Even though it’s hit and miss, the movie wants you to laugh, does everything in its power to get you laughing and piles the jokes high, at the expense of good taste at every turn. Playing like an R-rated political cartoon, The Campaign is as outrageous and hilarious as Bulworth but lacks that film’s intelligence and fresh satire.
The running joke here is that no amount of backstabbing, double-crossing, and deception is too low for Brady or Huggins, who both do absolutely anything to win. Sadly, the movie only feels slightly ahead of its time, as some of the bizarre, perverse turn of events that take place seem weirdly plausible in today’s world of politics-as-entertainment.
There’s something novel about an R-rated, foul mouthed, take-no-prisoners political roast, which goes for the throat while other recent comedies about politics, like Man of the Year, tend to be gentle and forgettable. Director Jay Roach is a comedy veteran who helmed Meet the Parents and all of the Austin Powers films; his last film, Dinner For Schmucks, ran out of steam before it even got to the dinner of the title. Here, the first two acts are the strongest and crammed with one obscene gut buster after another, leading to an ending that works but seems like the screenwriters have finally run out of ideas.
It’s over-plotted and mean spirited at times, as everyone on screen is a target waiting to be skewered. Gags ranging from an infant being punched to a horrific snake bite taking on epic proportion are the sort of fiendishly naughty and downright filthy jokes the audience is in for.
A running gag involving Brady’s children having a surprising taste in music and Huggins’ dogs becoming unwanted in their home had me howling. So did Ferrell and Galifiankis, who can be one-note in lesser vehicles, but here give robust comic turns with surprising amounts of humanity. Even when they both sink as low as they can go, Brady and Huggins are likeable, if completely crazy figures whose wicked game of one-upmanship remains engagingly twisted the entire movie.
The rest of the cast is in great form, such as a never funnier Jason Sudeikis, finally landing a role worthy of his Saturday Night Live career. Lithgow and Aykroyd, together on screen for the first time since Twilight Zone–The Movie, are fun to watch, even in hammy villain roles like these and Brian Cox has some amusing moments as Huggins’ disapproving father.
At the center of it all is Ferrell and Galifianakis, gleefully mocking every political cliché in the book. Between now and November, this movie feels like a needed breath of fresh air.
★ ★ ★
Rated R / 85 Min.