Directed by Jay Roach, The Campaign is a timely and entertaining comedy that balances the ridiculous and the realistic well. It is an appropriate farce, one that mines the distasteful political process for laughs. Because of the sheer spitefulness of American politics, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at how closely the 2012 film runs to how things really are.
The Campaign is sharp in its prodding of elements like the fickle electorate, the theatrical experience of politics, the use of attack advertisements, and the generally foul tone of campaigning despite promises of civility. The characters employ a series of too-silly-to-fail schemes in efforts to win, but none of their strategies are far from the truth.
Will Ferrell stars as Congressman Cam Brady of North Carolina’s 14th district. He has been running unopposed for four terms and is about to enter his fifth. His public standing is flailing and he’s taken a dip in the polls after news of an affair emerged. Meanwhile, the beautifully-named Motch Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) are looking for a candidate that will support their plans to sell land and companies to China under the guise of “insourcing.”
The Motch Brothers settle on Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a tourism director and humble son of Motch associate Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox). Marty is excited about the prospect of running for office and making a real difference. He and Cam become fast foes when the Motches hire Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) to help Marty win.
The Campaign outlines just how far political campaigns can go and just how quickly the games of one-upmanship can get out of hand. There are affairs and insane allegations, such as when Cam links Marty’s moustache to Al Qaeda. This isn’t overly far from how the real political games are played, as even the most passive spectators of American politics can gather.
Roach’s film also digs into the role of money in politics. It references Citizens United in a post-credits sequence and makes no bones about who the Motch Brothers represent. Lithgow and Aykroyd are seamlessly smarmy as the dissolute capitalists pumping money into the administrative arena for their own benefit. Their statements about profit and labour are damn close to the mark.
With all the discourse of cash in politics and obnoxious campaigning, it’s sometimes hard to imagine The Campaign as comedy. Luckily, Roach goes for the gusto with a sequence of preposterous events that draw on some great slapstick tradition. The baby-punching sequence is riotously exaggerated, for one thing, but it’s topped by the news that the incident didn’t cost Cam his political life.
The characters are well-done. Galifianakis plays one of his best roles to date as Marty, a naïve Southerner. The character illustrates just how easy it can be for the potential of political gold to prove a debasing influence. Ferrell, meanwhile, plays what seems to be a mash-up of some of his other characters. He makes for a decent polished politician, but he’s outshined by Galifianakis at every turn.
The Campaign is an effective modern comedy. It nails its political elements and captures the evil of campaigning and the tenuous process that keeps money so involved in the process. It is clever at times and downright stupid at others, but it almost always generates a good deal of laughs. Some jokes hit harder than others, as is usually the case, and some segments seem needless, but this movie is still worth checking out at least once.