When we last left Will Ferrell, he was starring in Casa de mi Padre, an intriguing though failed experiment in genre parody. His new comedy, The Campaign, is a better, funnier movie, and even if it doesn’t rank among Ferrell’s best, it still gives his fans something they’ll more easily recognize and appreciate.
He portrays Rep. Cam Brady, an unprincipled, philandering Democratic congressman from North Carolina who will say anything to win votes. (“Automotive audio installers and window tinters are the backbone of America!”) Just as he’s preparing to run unopposed for his fifth term, two evil billionaire industrialists named — gee, who could this be referring to? — the Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) decide that they can further line their pockets by turning Cam out of office in favor of a Republican patsy. They find their man in Marty “Tickleshits” Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the effeminate, pea-brained head of the local tourism board. The two candidates hold substance-free debates and lower public discourse to stupefying levels.
Maybe Ferrell’s sense of political satire has dulled since George W. Bush left office, or maybe real-life campaigns have simply gone beyond parody. Whichever it is, the movie’s jabs at focus groups, negative ads, and candidates who wrap themselves in Jesus and the flag don’t land as accurately as they should. Like Ferrell’s 2010 comedy The Other Guys, this one rails at the outsize power and influence wielded by the richest Americans, but the social commentary comes off as obvious and interrupts the comic momentum. The story ends with both Cam and Marty finding their better selves, and while bitterness and cynicism have never been in Ferrell’s repertoire (a big reason why he’s a star), this movie would have been better if it packed more of a sting.
Still, this thing is funny. Galifianakis is a more than capable match for Ferrell, and with his Marcel-permed hair and neatly trimmed mustache, he makes Marty into a guy who takes wholesomeness to a completely weird place. The film has other zesty supporting turns from a well-cast Dylan McDermott as Marty’s sinister dark lord of a campaign manager and Karen Maruyama as an Asian housekeeper whom Marty’s wealthy Old South father (Brian Cox) pays to talk like an elderly African-American maid. (“He says it reminds him of the good old days.”) We’re given a number of memorable set pieces: Marty’s inane, pointless story about his two dogs; Cam’s chief of staff (Jason Sudeikis) trying to help his boss recite the Lord’s Prayer by frantically acting it out in charades; and a slow-motion sequence of Cam accidentally punching a baby on the campaign trail. Working with Ferrell for the first time, director Jay Roach makes it all go down fairly smoothly. You’ll have to look elsewhere if you want to be enlightened on the state of American politics in 2012, but if you’re simply looking for a few laughs, The Campaign checks the box.
Starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. Directed by Jay Roach. Written by Shawn Harwell and Chris Henchy. Rated R.