How could a comedy possibly top the disreputable vileness of a real-life political campaign? Put Will Ferrell in it.
The willful obliviousness and self-delusional idiocy of candidates on the campaign trail also happen to be two qualities that define so many of Ferrell’s comic characters: blowhard newscaster Ron Burgundy, buffoonish ABA basketball star Jackie Moon, narcissistic Olympic ice skater Chazz Michael Michaels. Now, in The Campaign, we have Cam Brady, a Democratic congressman from North Carolina who has earned multiple terms by getting up on stage, shining a greasy smile and glassy eyes and saying, “America. Jesus. Freedom.” (Asked what that means, he says he doesn’t know, but that “the people love it when I say it.”)
Cam’s easy ride comes to an end, however, when two Machiavellian, billionaire brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, surely spoofing the Koch family) put their significant cash behind a puppet of a Republican challenger: local boy Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis). Not much brighter than Brady, but with a significantly purer heart, Marty’s presence turns the race into a wild media circus that plays like an R-rated version of this past year’s political news bites.
If Ferrell is offering a twist on his usual fool, I’m not exactly sure what Galifiankis is doing – but it’s hilarious. Prone to dead stares yet relentlessly cheerful, with a wife and two sons he adores only slightly less than his two pugs, Marty is the sort of gleeful oddball who makes everyone in the room nervous. (Brian Cox, as Marty’s disapproving father, offers a crude description of his son that involves Richard Simmons and a hobbit.)
It doesn’t take long, of course, for the campaign trail to grind the geniality out of Marty. After a hired gun of a campaign manager (Dylan McDermott, very funny) whips Marty into shape – out go the pugs, in come manly dogs with bandanas – he engages Cam in a campaign of increasing absurdity. You may think things go over the top – most of the political skullduggery involves some sort of misguided sexual stunt – but keep in mind The Campaign is competing with a real world in which a married politician tweets a picture of his crotch.
Similarly, the circular non sequiturs that define most of the dialogue – I particularly enjoyed the debate that devolved into an argument over whether Jesus had a mustache – initially seem ludicrous, until you realize they’re not too much different from the way the media and special-interest groups frame our contemporary political discourse. I can easily imagine a politician being asked about her stance on the Jesus mustache issue.
If only The Campaign had maintained this comic bite all the way to its end. Alas, what began as The Candidate heads more in the direction of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, as Marty and Cam call a truce and unite against those billionaire brothers. That’s not bad in and of itself – I have room in my heart for political optimism – but optimism has no place in a festering satire such as this.