There’s something about a political campaign that is just inherently funny. The whole idea of two opponents running against each other for an extremely powerful government position, only for their race to become nothing but distractions and personal attacks, simply makes for good comedy when looked at from an outside perspective. That’s what makes shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report so hilarious and brilliant. The Campaign, the newest Jay Roach comedy starring Will Ferrell and Zack Galifianakis, exploits this idea and takes its premise of rival politicians to the farther possible extreme. The result is a pretty funny political satire that, while often going way over the top, still has a surprising amount of heart to go along with its thoroughly vulgar core.
The Campaign opens on Cam Brady (Will Ferrell), a congressman from the 14th district of North Carolina. Picture the mannerisms of Ferrell’s George W. Bush mixed with the personality of John Edwards. It’s a small enough town that nobody ever runs against Brady, so each and every year he is elected with no opposition. One day, his reputation is damaged when he accidently leaves a sexually explicit phone call on the voicemail of an unsuspecting family. This is the kind of thing we would dismiss as being too absurd until it basically happened last year, only on Twitter. Two corrupt businessmen, the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), use this drop in the polls as an opportunity to run a candidate against him to further their own agenda.
They search for someone who will challenge Brady and do their bidding, while being clueless enough to not know what they’re up to. Enter Marty Huggins (Zack Galifianakis), who longtime fans may already know as Seth Galifianakis from the Funny or Die sketch series “Between Two Ferns.” Huggins is approached with the offer and immediately jumps on the opportunity to get into politics, going in with an optimistic mindset despite having very little idea of how the whole system works. His personal life is completely rearranged when Marty’s new campaign manager (Dylan McDermott) tries to make him into a more respectable candidate. So the games begin, but it’s not long before the campaign, as many do, descends into complete and utter madness.
There’s probably just about one and only question you have regarding The Campaign: is it funny? Yes, it really is. This is one of Ferrell’s most consistently hilarious movies since Anchorman. Like that film, The Campaign at first relies on an only slightly exaggerated version of the real thing, slowly escalating further and further. Also like Anchorman it is delightfully silly, with a very loose attachment to reality and an excellent sense of pacing. Here is a very lean movie that at no point loses its rhythm, ending right when it needs to and not a second later. Will Ferrell and Zack Galifianakis are easily two of my favorite comedic actors working today, and although this movie is never as quotable as Anchorman or The Hangover, what we love about both of them is encapsulated quite well in Brady and Huggins.
What might surprise you about The Campaign is that it’s pretty much non-partisan. This is a lampooning of the very idea of winner take all elections, and how ridiculous and nonsensical the whole process can get. Though occasionally events do mirror real life in strange ways, it works within the theme of the movie that The Campaign rarely ever brings up actual issues because neither do the candidates. They would prefer to dodge, provide non-answers and attack their opponent especially on personal matters that are of no importance to anyone. One of the running themes is that amidst all the mudslinging craziness between Brady and Huggins, there are important issues being completely ignored. It’s sad but also darkly comedic that we allow that to happen.
At times The Campaign can get bogged down in a very clear message about campaign finance reform with the Motch brothers storyline, an embarrassingly obvious Koch brothers reference. The screenplay written by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell is funny, but it lacks any sort of subtly in that regard. This would be much more of an issue if we were talking about a drama here, but what really matters is if the movie made me laugh. I laughed a lot and often, and for a movie that begins with such a cynical take on the whole political process, by the end it offers a pretty nice message about leadership and responsibility that, if a bit cliché, was still a pleasant surprise. A lot of times it goes way over the top, and there’s nothing here that will revolutionize political satire, but there’s something to The Campaign’s blend of parody, slapstick and genuine heart that just hits all the right notes.