American political campaigns are absurd to a point that exaggeration is unnecessary to create comedy. Of course, that did not stop Jay Roach from adding a few hyperboles to his new movie starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. While it may be a bit much to call it satire, “The Campaign” gleefully lampoons our political culture, and just in time for election season, too.
Cam Brady (Ferrell) is a Democratic congressman in North Carolina running for re-election unopposed until a sex scandal makes him vulnerable. This prompts the ultra-rich Motch Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) to pull their support and throw it behind a new candidate they plan to control. Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) is brought in as their unwitting dupe candidate to run on the Republican ticket against Brady. As one can imagine, nothing goes as planned.
There are several effective scenes made more comedic by their proximity to real-life campaign absurdities. Brady makes a point of repeating keywords: America, Jesus and freedom. He also ends his stump speeches by proclaiming the audience to be the “backbone of America,” whether he is speaking to teachers, farmers or Filipino Tilt-A-Whirl operators. In another highlight, Huggins produces a story called “Rainbowland” that Brady wrote in the second grade; he reads it aloud and critiques it as communist propaganda because the plot involves a teddy bear who shares his pot of gold with a leprechaun (“the redistribution of wealth”).
Unfortunately, “The Campaign” is bogged down by sequences that vary between lazy and preachy. There are a lot of throwaway jokes that could have been written for any other comedy and that lack any real setup or payoff. For example, there are repeated references that Huggins loses control of his bowels when tickled, but there is no scene where this actually happens. (Why waste screen time on a joke you don’t follow through with?) And at other times the film’s message against corporations and the wealthy holding disproportionate influence in our elections feels heavy-handed.
For what it’s worth, “The Campaign” isn’t much better or worse than any other Will Ferrell comedy, post-“Anchorman” that is. There are a handful of decent laughs but nothing memorable. And though the film takes a stance on campaign finance reform, it never assumes a political ideology, probably because absurdity in American politics is a bipartisan issue.