We're still a few months away from Election Day, and already political season feels like "It's Duck Season! It's Rabbit Season! It's Duck Season! It's Rabbit Season!" Into the mix Jay Roach throws The Campaign, and though it's very funny, by the end it's hard not to feel like it's Fiddler Crab Season. Shoot me now!
Of no party nor ideology because Adam McKay, Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell's script believes that our political system has the same problem, The Campaign tells us that we do indeed get the government we deserve. It's a satire that constantly drags one foot in raunchy comedy. If you look closely, you'll notice that you're getting spoon-fed commentary.
That's not to say it's wrong, though a few jokes are in that category of wrong that you can't help watching.
Democratic Congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) seems like the perfect politician. Ready with vague sound bites, able to adapt his speech to the most obscure of workers' groups, Cam is so golden it doesn't even matter that he egregiously carries on affairs. He has John Edwards hair with a Dubyah smile. How can he be so Teflon? He has no opponent.
But the ultra-rich industrialists the Motch Brothers have a plan to bring Chinese sweatshop workers to the U.S. To do that, they need to buy another politician. And so they set up the pliable but good-natured Marty Huggins (Zach Galiafanakis) to run against Cam.
What follows is dirty politics, mostly orchestrated by the black-clad strategist Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott). He has to get Marty from frump to hunk, or at least someone who seems in the vicinity of masculine.
At his core, Marty is sincere, one of those magical movie characters who really does believe the best about everybody while marching to the beat of his own drum – a tiny drum that doesn't make too much noise but he loves the sound. While on the other hand, Cam plays a drunken timpani.
Director Roach does a good job of raising the stakes as the campaign gets more and more vicious, and he is one of the few modern comedy directors who really knows how to stage a visual joke. At least 60% of what makes McDermott hilarious comes from the camera work by Jim Denault. He also knows when to trust the screenplay – and yes, it does have an even funnier button to the overplayed "punching a baby" scene from the trailer.
Both Ferrell and Galiafanakis tap into something a little different than their usual screen personas, though those are still at the root. Cam did once believe in things other than his own power, and Ferrell lets that inner conflict work as an undercurrent. The prissy character Galiafanakis builds might be familiar to people who have seen his stand-up or appearances on SNL, but hasn't been tapped much for the big screen. Marty's sincerity does shine.
Some of the lesser characters don't click quite as well. While the immediate families built around Marty and Cam are fairly stock (but effective), Brian Cox seems to be just sleep-walking through his role as Marty's retired political advisor father. The usually excellent Cox can't even find an accent he likes. Marty also has a brother who pops up only to lob insults, and yet seems like he would be the preferable candidate for the Motches.
Jason Sudeikis lurks around for a while, but suffers the same fate as Michael Caine in The Dark Knight Rises, getting shuffled off-stage because it was getting too crowded.
Despite being played by two incredible comic actors, John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd, the funniest thing about the Motch Brothers is that sometimes their name sounds like the Marx Brothers. Yes, I know they stand in for the real Koch Brothers, but Lithgow and Aykroyd timidly play stock villains, never bringing anything particularly inventive or mean or for gosh sakes what about clever to the roles.
The real stand-out, however, is Karen Maruyama as Cox's maid, Mrs. Yao. To say anything would be a spoiler, but suffice that every moment she is onscreen is hilarious.
Thank heavens for that, because the subject matter means you have to laugh or you'd cry. The biggest problem with The Campaign isn't that it's ridiculous or overblown; it's the fear that real life politics might be even more ridiculous and overblown.