For a film enjoying its theatrical run as the 2012 presidential election race draws closer and closer to the finish line, The Campaign feels supremely out of date. It’s worth mentioning right away that regardless, the film is frequently hilarious; from little, quiet, unexpectedly odd moments to much grander and more orchestrated fits of pure lunacy, The Campaign works on a strictly comic level. That’s half the battle, of course, maybe more depending on how you like your comedies, but it’s impossible to shake off the frivolity on full display right next to the movie’s prominent absurdities. How does one make a picture about politics in a politically aware era and at such a politically sensitive moment in time and still manage to say nothing relevant?
The vast emptiness of The Campaign is especially surprising in consideration of its genre. Comedy is an outstanding platform for dissecting the inner workings of the political machine, and to the film’s credit, it does so, but in the most shoe-horned, ham-handed ways possible, marring a perfectly fine premise in the process. After all, Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) and Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) are outrageous on their own merits; in the eponymous campaign, they need no assistance in making themselves and each other look ridiculous. Brady, a randy boor, is flustered at the thought of actually having to work to win voter support, since he’s run unopposed for the last four election cycles. Meanwhile, the fey, hopelessly weird Huggins is a political outsider, the sort of person who should never hold any sort of government office, much less a seat in Congress. In short, it’s dumb against dumber; let the games begin.
Happily, everything that unfolds between Huggins and Brady works like gangbusters. Galifianakis and Ferrell both possess endless reserves of manic man-child energy that lets them take their characters to dizzying heights of foolishness, and their wildly differing personas compliment one another excellently; Ferrell’s brand of macho, dopey bravado plays perfectly against Galifianakis’ overt, oblivious strangeness. Whether either actor is intentionally trying to evoke real-life political figures in their performances is hard to say– Ferrell shows flourishes and affectations that recall Clinton, Edwards, and even Bush Jr., while Galifianakis feels like a composite of fringe nut jobs like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann– but they both succeed in creating portraits of compellingly awful people regardless.
In truth, they’re not actually all that bad; Brady can’t keep it in his pants and he’s the biggest narcissist this side of any past Ferrell character you can name, but his worst crime is vanity. (And baby punching.) And while I wouldn’t want Huggins to represent my interests, he’s sweetly naive and harmless until he enters the race. Even then he’s pushed by his brutal, enigmatic campaign manager (Dylan McDermott, the film’s secret weapon) to sling the worst kind of mud. Derision isn’t part of Huggins’ nature, and Brady has a conscience, even if he tends to ignore it.
Curious sympathies aside, what proves to be The Campaign‘s stumbling block is its own impotent outrage. There’s an inescapable sense that somebody involved with the production bears a deep-rooted grudge against super PACs, and the result is a film with a clear-cut agenda (though it’s neither liberal nor conservative; Huggins is firmly right wing, Brady is designated as a Democrat). Maybe that’s pointing out the obvious; any politically-oriented film, after all, inherently possesses an agenda of one manner or another. But it takes more than educated fits of pique to see those intentions all the way through. It takes teeth. While The Campaign has the guts to go the distance with its punchlines– the aforementioned baby-punching gag is only the tip of that iceberg– the film noticeably shows little such conviction toward its political sentiments.
This is a film about bumbling candidates, the decay of civil discourse in American politics, and corporate influence over American politics. But it’s also about formula. The Campaign has some pretty sharp thorns to jab into the sides of big business, nebulously represented by the nefarious Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd, both a handlebar mustache away from Snidely Whiplash), and thinks very little of both American politicians and their ill-informed, easily-riled constituents. But it doesn’t do much more than make them all look rather silly before reaching a heartwarming climax, complete with lessons in humility and honesty. In other words, The Campaign is a sweet treat with too cloying a finish.
And that renders its rage ineffective, even if the laughs here retain all of their power. The Campaign works as a broad farce first and a slice of political commentary second; it’s not interested in the reality of American politics so much as it’s invested in caricature. Wouldn’t it be a grand thing if we could pin all the ills of our political institutions on one pair of greedy industrialists? The Motch brothers act as a device and de facto antagonists, twisted bad guys who write their own destinies by putting the entire plot in motion via clunky exposition before paying the price for their avarice in the third act. It’s a lovely dream, but a really dishonest political statement.
Does that matter if the film makes us laugh? Probably not, and there are a number of comedic beats here that had me laughing long after they’d ended. There’s nothing wrong with craving something more, though, and The Campaign simply comes up short outside of the joke department. Not everyone can be an Armando Iannucci– the man behind 2009′s brilliant In the Loop and HBO series Veep– but his work has bite. The Campaign spares no one in its mockery, but it’s stymied by the fondness it secretly harbors for its leads and the disdain it holds for its villains. For a film that showcases delightfully shameless behavior from its principals at every turn, it lacks the edge necessary to truly strike a nerve.