Mock the vote
Lots of laughs, little satire in this election-year send-up
As an election-year entertainment, The Campaign is sometimes pertinent, sometimes impertinent, oftentimes silly. Its facetious send-up of a fictional North Carolina campaign for a congressional seat is not without points of contemporary relevance, but impertinence—in the form of rambunctious comedy—is finally its strongest suit.
Screenwriters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell do some moderately satirical riffing on topical matters—campaign finance reform, attack ads, focus groups and buzz words, market-minded electioneering, etc. But it’s chiefly a series of comic opportunities for its stars, Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis.
Airheaded Cam Brady (Ferrell) is the incumbent candidate and doofus Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) is the last-minute challenger in a district where Brady is accustomed to running unopposed. John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd play the superwealthy Motch brothers (sound familiar?), who are ready to bankroll whichever candidate can be most profitably bought. Brady’s chronically rampant libido gets him in trouble with his backers, and it’s their money that throws Huggins unexpectedly into the race.
The ensuing campaign is a mostly funny mash-up of negative ads, televised screw-ups, extravagant image-tweaking and spin management. Wives and families get variously entangled in assorted brouhahas, with political handlers played by Jason Sudeikis and Dylan McDermott tweaking every step and misstep along the way.
With or without the semi-satiric touches, Brady is a flashy vehicle for the lame-brained impulsiveness of a familiar Ferrell persona and Huggins is a mostly charming opportunity for Galifianakis’ patented prissy man/child act. And, while their respective antics have center stage, there are some nicely populated sideshows developing with several of the secondary characters.
Katherine LaNasa is very sharp as Brady’s sharkishly ambitious wife, Rose, and cherubic Sarah Baker musters a quiet force of her own as Huggins’ wife, Mitzi. Each of the women mirrors her husband in contrastingly ironic ways. The casting choices for the candidates’ children register several kinds of pathos without any of them having much to say.
McDermott’s lethal-looking Tim Wattley isn’t very funny, but that does give him a darkly satiric edge that is missing from much of the rest of the film. The cheery cynicism of Brady’s campaign manager (Sudeikis) gets soft-pedaled in the end, and the Aykroyd/Lithgow rendition of the Motch brothers is mostly a matter of cartoonish buffoonery. The comical ethnic crossovers of the Huggins’ maid (Karen Maruyama) seem gratuitous if not ineffective.
The figureheads of Huggins’ family—boozily imperious father Raymond (Brian Cox) and genially obnoxious brother Tripp (Josh Lawson)—are pungent caricatures initially, but real family dynamics have no place in this movie’s comic simplifications.
Neither the fast-and-loose happy ending nor the campaign-reform coda planted in the closing credits carries much conviction. More likely, the baby-punching episode and Brady’s sex tape/attack ad are what we’ll remember from this one.