Every generation gets the political satire it deserves. In 1972, Michael Ritchie took on campaigning in “The Candidate,” a bracing, not-far-from-reality look at Nixon-era tactics in a closely-fought California senatorial race between a slick, seasoned Republican and an idealistic young Democrat. Forty years later we get “The Campaign,” about a congressional contest in North Carolina. The fact that it pits an incumbent played by Will Ferrell against a challenger played by Zach Galifianakis is a signal that Jay Roach’s picture chooses a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel in sending up the way the political game is now played. While “The Candidate” was a sly, biting piece of social commentary, “The Campaign” is a rude, often crude live-action cartoon more farcical than probing.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not sporadically very funny—especially when it avoids gross-out sexual gags and vulgar dialogue—or that it doesn’t take on some real targets. It revels in the vacuity of most campaigns and the emptiness of political speechifying, with their emphasis on trivial non-issues; and it makes much of the power of big money in deciding elections, positing as ultimate villains the Koch (sorry, Motch) brothers, Wade (Dan Aykroyd) and Glenn (John Lithgow), who pour money into the race to secure a pliant representative who will secure approval of their plan to “insource” Chinese slave-wage workers to the sweat-shop factories they plan to build in the district. (That’s actually pretty sharp stuff, giving the way things are going in this country.) And Ferrell and Galifianakis play off one another expertly, earning some major guffaws with their sheer stupidity. It’s just a pity that the script by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell too often feels the need to descend to Apatow-level jokes and language to please the yahoo crowd.
Ferrell is incumbent Cam Brady, a four-term Democrat who’s running unopposed for re-election despite a recent mistake: he recorded a steamy message meant for his mistress on the machine of a pious family, creating a scandal. For some reason the Motch brothers take this as an excuse to dump the lazy, libidinous fellow—who’s apparently been their tool—and run a candidate against him. Their choice is hapless Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a high-minded, gregarious but effete and eccentric cipher without a glimmer of the common touch. They’ll bring Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), a crafty, hard-as-nails consultant, to act his manager and whip him into becoming a viable threat to Brady, whose campaign guru Mitch (Jason Sudeikis) watches in horror as his man continues to destroy his own chances with gaffe after gaffe—punching not only a baby but a dog as the campaign proceeds (and those are his minor missteps). Meanwhile Huggins finds that he’s turning into a dirty pol under Wattley’s training in scurrilous tactics.
There’s some clever bits sprinkled throughout all this. A debate in which Huggins accuses Brady of being a Communist on the basis of a crayon-illustrated story he wrote back in elementary school—leading to a furious audience reaction—is, for example, a nifty take on the moronic level of much contemporary political discourse, and it’s not entirely alone. (A running thread in the screenplay is the lemming-like reaction of the voters, whose choice in the polls goes up and down in reaction to the nonsensical charges and counter-charges. One hopes that viewers are smart enough to realize they’re the targets here.) Unfortunately, the good bits are nearly outweighed by stuff like a scene involving Brady’s seduction of Huggins’ wife (Sarah Baker) and the commercial he devises from it. And the last-act turn to Capra-esque “Mr. Smith” territory is way too easy an out, especially compared to the sharpness with which Ritchie ended “The Candidate.” (Ultimately, this movie closes more like “Dave.”)
Still, “The Campaign” clicks more often than not, which in present-day Hollywood comedy is about the best average one should expect. Ferrell, doing a riff on his George W. Bush caricature, is more agreeable than he often is onscreen, and Galifianakis, doing a toned-down version of the character he played in “Due Date” (and coming off like a virtual twin of Jack Black in “Bernie”) makes an amiable foil. Sudeikis is, as usual, pretty bland, but Aykroyd and Lithgow are an appropriately snooty pair, and McDermott gets a few good moments as the wily, amoral campaign chief. (The three also make a bonus added to the credit scroll work.)
The candidates’ families fare less well, with Baker pallid and Katherine LaNasa shrill as Rose Brady, and the Huggins boys—Grant Goodman’s Clay and Kya Haywood’s Dylan—never really recover from a dinner-table scene that starts out well but goes too far, while Randall Cunningham’s Cam Jr. is merely used for a ponderous lesson in teaching your kids to do the right thing. Brian Cox, however, shines as Marty’s dad, an old-style Southerner resigned to his son’s embarrassing failures and shocked at his success. (His Dixie-esque treatment of his housekeeper, played nimbly by Karen Maruyama, is also a first-rate gag.) And technically the movie is fine, moving nicely under Jay Roach’s direction, which keeps things tighter than is often the case with these stars, and the editing of Craig Alpert and Jon Poll, who bring it in at a crisp eighty-five minutes, which include lots of montages featuring cable pundits like Chris Matthews and late-night talk-show hosts.
Especially when compared to a masterpiece like “Dr. Strangelove” or even a lesser work like “Wag the Dog,” there’s no contest here: “The Campaign” is more clown show than stinging satire. Still, in this case the clowns are funny more often than not.