The Campaign is so obvious in its intent that, within the movie’s brief runtime, two characters are able to lament that “Big Money” controls the government. It concerns a pair of Congressional candidates from North Carolina—both of whom are almost criminally unfit for office—one of which is funded by the shadowy, money hungry Motch Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), who hope to use their seat in congress to get the ball rolling on something they call “insourcing,” the importing of Chinese labor and regulations to American factories, to double their already stupendous profits.
The Motch Brothers are, as you may guess, based on the Koch Brothers, but The Campaign isn’t a movie with a strong liberal or conservative bent. Representative Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is the horndog Democrat, the bearer of a John Edwards haircut and a laundry list of sexual transgressions. Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) is a sweet, naive guy, a pug owner who gets into politics because he wants to help his community, which he is inordinately proud of, a Republican by virtue of his backing. In debate, neither man appears to have a platform (when asked about job creation, Brady says “Jobs are the backbone of this country” and leaves it there), but both are convinced that America, freedom, and God are great.
Mostly, The Campaign shows how a nice guy like Marty can fall prey to Big Money, but it’s got nothing to do with his politics. He is aided by a campaign manager (Dylan McDermott) who gives his wife Mitzi (Sarah Baker) a Katie Couric haircut, orders his children to bed, and replaces his pugs with a more American breed. He is steel-eyed and drunk, blunt and brutally efficient. Goofy Marty Huggins becomes a surprisingly viable candidate for public office, aided immensely by his opponents inability to do anything well in the face of his first legitimate challenge in four terms. If Marty Huggins got into politics to help his community, Cam Brady did so because he likes to win, and has, in the ensuing years, become increasingly desperate to do so.
This isn’t quite new territory for anybody involved. Ferrell and Galifianakis are just a few steps removed from their usual comic personas—Ferrell, of course, adopting much of what made his George W. Bush sketches on Saturday Night Live work, and Galifianakis a much more middle-America version of his Seth Galifianakis character. Director Jay Roach, whose career has spanned comedies like the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents trilogies and a pair of HBO political dramas (Game Change and Recount), marries the sensibilities of those genres here. Underneath the candidates’ gaffes, slow-motion punch-outs, and ill-fated recitations of the Lord’s Prayer, there is an undercurrent of rage.
There’s also a sense of disbelief to the proceedings, as every time Brady or Huggins screw up, various 24-hour news channel talking heads relay the effect on the campaign, and it’s always, quote, “a slight bump.” Indeed, the only thing in The Campaign that’s damaging to one’s character is the perception that you’re not normal folk. Huggins entire political career is almost derailed at his introductory brunch by Cam Brady’s revelation that the pug—Marty’s dog of choice—is a communist breed, and Brady is left vulnerable not so much because he’s a sexual deviant and adulterer, but because he left a sexually-charged message on the answering machine of a deeply religious family.
The Campaign is a funny movie simply on the basis of pitting Ferrell and Galifianakis against each other, and its anger over campaign finance reform and the era of the Super PAC is well-justified. Like this year’s The Dictator, the movie is at its best when examining the byproducts of American greed and naivety, but it suffers in the same way, too, by mostly shooting at low-hanging fruit. The Campaign also finds itself choked with far too many bit characters for its 85-minute runtime. Marty’s father and brother simply occupy space while Cam’s long-suffering campaign manager (Jason Sudekis) is there to give the congressman the proper redemptive arc his cold, victory obsessed wife won’t allow.
The end result is funny but staggeringly uneven, important, but light enough to be easily digested and forgotten. It has already drawn the ire of its chief targets, who I suspect reacted based mostly on the report of a few aides, but The Campaign‘s audience will not at all be concerned with the antics of Aykroyd and Lithgow, its cartoon villains, or their plot to flood America with cheap, Chinese labor. This is clearly the Ferrell and Galifianakis show. Any distraction—however painful (or important)—is brief, and almost every secondary character is as shadowy and ill-defined as the Koch Brothers themselves.
The Campaign. Directed by Jay Roach. With Will Ferrell (Cam Brady), Zack Galifianakis (Marty Huggins), Jason Sudeikis (Mitch), Dylan McDermott (Tim Wattley), Sarah Baker (Mitzi Huggins), Dan Aykroyd (Wade Motch), and John Lithgow (Glenn Motch), Released August 10, 2012, by Warner Bros.