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Non-Review Review: The Campaign

The Campaign is hardly the most complex piece of political satire ever written. In fact, the movie suffers a great deal because its observations about political corruption feel fairly superficial. The relationship between donors and politicians, and the sway that what the movie terms “big money” has over elected officials, are hardly cutting insights into the way that lobbying and electioneering actually works. To be fair, there is something in the way that the movie parodies the tendency of US elections to get incredibly dirty incredibly fast, but The Campaign ultimately winds up feeling a little superficial.

That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of wit to be found here. Both Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis are skilled comedians, even when the material isn’t necessarily up to scratch. And in order to make fun of the extreme rhetoric that such campaigns may involve, the movie occasionally pushes itself into the realm of the surreal. However, its observations and its targets seem so obvious that the movie can also be remarkably frustrating.

A candid(ate) look at the electoral process?

A candid(ate) look at the electoral process?

To be fair, a lot of The Campaign works off the established screen personas of Ferrell and Galifianakis. Ferrell plays Cam Brady, who is maybe just a shade meaner than the typical Ferrell character. He’s a bumbling idiot who has managed to achieve some measure of success through fluke rather than through talent, and the movie sees that success challenged. This turns Brady into a petulant and spoilt child, engaging in all manner of underhanded tactics as his life falls apart around him.

And yet, despite that, we get a sense that there’s a sincere and decent man buried deep beneath that “strong” hair, borderline sociopathy and confrontational personality. In short, he’s like every Will Ferrell character ever, from Ricky Bobby to Ron Burgundy. Okay, Brady is perhaps a touch meaner and more malicious than Brady, and there’s a sense he’s a shade more familiar with how the world works, but the character isn’t exactly a stretch.

A bit of a snake, that one...

A bit of a snake, that one…

The same is true of Marty Huggins, the character played by Zach Galifianakis. Huggins is a weirdo, to be frank. He’s well-intentioned, but he’s a collection of annoying quirks and tics with a dysfunctional family life. To be fair, again, Huggins develops into a political animal, allowing Galifianakis to play a more coherent and aggressive iteration of the character, but the character is still the same sort of role that Galifianakis is known for.

And a lot of the comedy in The Campaign works best when it is relatively broad. In fact, it’s so broad that it doesn’t really matter that Brady is running as a Democrat and Huggins as a Republican. There are passing references to this, but the script seems afraid to go too deep into parodying the political stances of either party. It’s all very superficial. And it seems quite weighted to make more fun of the Republicans.

Walk tall...

Walk tall…

When Huggins is announced as a candidate, for example, his campaign team immediately installs a gun wrack and hunting rifles in his home, despite the fact that he has no interest in the pastime. They also replace the family portrait with a picture of an eagle. Huggins also resorts to attacking Brady as a socialist, based on a story he wrote in school when he was eight years old that involved the redistribution of wealth in a fantasy kingdom. In contrast, Brady’s politics don’t seem to come up at all.

Although, as noted above, these are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the comedy is pitched at a somewhat generic level, which is not a bad idea. There are worse things than allowing Ferrell and Galifianakis to do broad comedy. And the best political commentary of the film comes from the increasingly dirty negative campaigns that both candidates run, which evoke all the sensationalist nonsense of various underhanded fear-mongering and cheap shots that we’ve come to expect at election time.

Let's see what's shaking...

Let’s see what’s shaking…

It’s a shame, then, that the movie seems to lack the energy to go for the throat. Both Huggins and Brady do terrible things, but there’s a sense the movie is afraid to turn us entirely against both or either candidate. Conveniently enough, the film is able to find two larger-than-life baddies in the form of the investors funding these campaigns. Generically referred to as “big money”, both Dan Ackroyd and Jon Lithgow are wasted in shallow roles that exist as nothing more than two-dimensional caricatures with schemes that include selling Carolina to China.

It feels a little superficial for a political satire. It doesn’t feel nearly vicious enough. More than that, though, it is willing to condemn these greedy stereotypes while still portraying the officials they corrupt as mostly innocent. It’s quite possible that viewers will hate Brady and Huggins by the end of the film, but not because of their ready complicity in this corruption. The Campaign seems to fall prey to the temptations it mocks in its political figures’ negative campaigns. It takes the cheap and superficial shots, rather than daring to say anything especially challenging or controversial.

Back seat driver...

Back seat driver…

Still, perhaps I’m being too harsh. There’s a lot to like here. Special mention must go to Huggins’ campaign manager, played by Dylan McDermott. He’s great in the role, seemingly materialising and dematerialising out of the surroundings – entering locked spaces and intimate places with ease. In fact, the best gags feature the arrival or departure of McDermott – entirely po-faced – in a scene. Sometimes he’s been there all along. Sometimes there’s a handy curtain.

The Campaign is light enough and entertaining enough. However, it lacks a bit of sparkle. It’s really just a typical Ferrell comedy with the setting shifted slightly. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it feels a little bit like a wasted potential.

3 Responses

  1. reviewed this recently myself, i liked it but really was just a re-run. Very nice non review

  2. Nice review Darren. Everybody here does fine with their comedic timing, it’s just that the comedy isn’t all that funny to begin with. There are some inspired spots of comedy here and there, but nothing all that special to write home about.

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