Is it too much to expect the broad, commercial jokefest that is The Campaign to be funny and take-no-prisoners smart? Come on. Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis are savvy and sharp-witted – actors masquerading as clowns. Who better in an election year to take down the fucked-up mess of current politics by lacing laughs with real provocation?
But filmmakers, like most politicians, would rather draw "yes" votes from audiences than draw blood. Ferrell and Galifianakis will crack you up – guaranteed. Is it too much to expect more? The movie sets up a challenge for voters in North Carolina's 14th congressional district: Re-elect Cam Brady (Ferrell), the four-term Democrat incumbent with a John Edwards haircut and sex scandals up the yin-yang. Or cast your vote for Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), a local tourism director without a clue, politically or otherwise. Juicy premise. But The Campaign, directed by Jay Roach from a slack, unfocused script by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell, doesn't begin to squeeze what is clearly low-hanging fruit, i.e., our increasingly corrupt and toxic election process.
The Campaign is R-rated, mostly for grotty gags (Cam porking a bimbo in a reeking Port-o-San) and the potty mouths of Marty's kids. Easy stuff, way below the astute skewering director Roach administered in two Emmy-nominated HBO movies, Recount and Game Change. Roach can also be handy with farce (the Austin Powers trilogy, Meet the Parents). Sadly, the knack for combining satire with silliness evades him this time.
What's typical is the scene in which Cam takes a swing at Marty and accidentally coldcocks an infant – in slo-mo, yet. It's all goofball fun, exploiting Ferrell's gift for gaffes and impersonation in the style of the Dubya he did on SNL. As Marty, a gullible do-gooder-turned-toxic-avenger by simply running for office, Galifianakis does a riff on Seth, the swanning twin brother he invented for his comedy act. Nothing new here, and that's a bummer.
The Campaign does flirt with satire in the form of the Motch brothers (aced by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), billionaire right-wing power brokers (modeled on the Koch brothers) who conspire to insource cheap Chinese labor to North Carolina. But the jokes never go deep, the toothless bites at the system leave no marks. It's only the wild-card energy of Ferrell and Galifianakis that keeps you on the ticket.