If only The Campaign, the uninspired Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis big screen political tête-à-tête, was just that. You would think an actual seat of Congress were at stake with the magnitude of an advertising blitz that has included joint interviews, buttons, stickers, and candidate websites, as the fight between fictitious Cam Brady (Ferrell) and Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) far more interesting in the media than in a movie.
The idea is wonderful in theory and on paper, but it’s one of those notions that fails when actualized—like democracy itself, or Ben Affleck as a superhero. Here, however, a funny concept is lost on the big screen, obscured by tired political allusions and a lack of imagination.
A mindless North Carolina incumbent with the brains of a George W. Bush, modesty of a Bill Clinton, and the kindness of a Rahm Emmanuel (Rob Ford, if you’d rather), faces an unlikely challenger in a man possessive of Marcus Bachmann’s masculinity and the cynicism of Aaron Sorkin (that should about evenly cover the political spectrum).
As the campaign rolls along, predictable joke after predictable joke is delivered, ripped from the headlines, trying to parody a group of people and a system that is so easy to make fun of that often the best way to do so is to do nothing at all. The problem with The Campaign is that often the exaggerations don’t go far enough because so much of it has happened in real life to some extent, or they just go too far that film simply becomes a spoof worthy of MAD TV.
Sure, no candidate in the American political system has purposefully released a sex tape as a campaign ad, but you don’t have to go far to find an article with the words ‘sex scandal’ and ‘politician’ in the same sentence (though this might give French or Italian politicians some ideas). Ferrell and Galifianakis are trapped within caricatures that work far better in a five minute SNL skit or a viral video, losing the charm that they so often possess in all of their films, whether or not they play likeable characters.
Just because we’re all agreeing that politicians are dumb doesn’t mean the audience is. Like the deception used in politics, we’re deceived with funny faces and an interesting collection of (underutilized) actors substituted for actually comedy. Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow play the Motch brothers (a not-so-subtle reference to conservative fundraisers the Koch brothers), a pair of ruthless corporate investors looking to play puppet-master with Huggins. Their mugging is instantly funny, in part because Lithgow is a fantastic actor in his own right, and due to the fact that Aykroyd hasn’t been heard from in years (According to Jim doesn’t count, no one that you or I know watched that).
Huggins’ seedy campaign manager, played by Dylan McDermont, may get the most laughs of the whole movie in his first scene as he overhauls Marty’s image, replacing among other things, a pair of pugs with golden retrievers named Sergeant and Scout, both of whom will always wear bandanas. Jason Sudeikis is his counterpart on the other side, but still taking a backseat to the boisterous Brady, and Brian Cox shows up to yell randomly at Marty, his son.
Adding to the star power, sort of, is a range of political pundits and analysts, from Chris Matthews to Bill Maher, Wolf Blitzer and Joe Scarborough, offering once more a glimpse of something far more interesting than the actual movie, which is the idea of the movie. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to see a fictitious campaign carried on between Ferrell and Galifianakis, with the cast of characters supporting them as they take to late night shows and run ads on television, all to no particular end, but ultimately blending the real and fake like the masterfully clever Stephen Colbert does so often.
Alas. The two stars have some hilarious scenes together, but they are too few and far between in a film that doesn’t know if it wants to be more social commentary, absurdist, or cynical. At least Welcome to Mooseport had heart. And Rip Torn.