Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Campaign (***)

Directed by Jay Roach


If I had to choose a classic cinematic model that set a template for The Campaign, it would probably be Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. On the surface, it seems hard to imagine someone the likes of Frank Capra inspiring a film who has a lead who likes to shave handlebar mustaches into his pubic hair. But if you look at the basic fundamental ideals behind this sophomoric political satire, it's not unlike the optimistic naivete of Caprian classics, where the little man is always able to rise up against the political machine with nothing but his integrity and small-town wherewithal. Yet, like Capra's great film, The Campaign finds the real charm in this tale, even if it seems totally unrealistic in today's cynical society.

In the small town of Hammond, North Carolina, Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) has been congressman for eight straight years, running unopposed every election and winning simply by putting his name on the ballot. It's not like he's even that good of a congressman, or gentleman for that matter. He's built up a reputation of a womanizer, with a habit of texting pictures of his penis to women and having sex in porto-potties. But when there's no one to run against it doesn't seem to matter how much of a sleazeball you are.

But when the Motch Brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), two wealthy and greedy business men, want to exploit Hammond and place a Chinese sweat shop in the town to save a bunch on shipping and double their already doubled profits, they realize they need to install a candidate that will help them follow through on their illustrious plan. They decide to pick Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the Head of Tourism in Hammond and a man who's as enthusiastic about this small town as a child is about Christmas. Marty, an odd, effeminate man with a close-knit family and two small pugs which he takes everywhere, is more than happy to run for Congress, and when Cam Brady discovers that he might have to actually campaign this time around, he's not happy about it.

The race takes a dark turn when Brady initiates character attacks on Huggins almost immediately at a "civil brunch". It is then that the Motch brothers install Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), campaign manager extraordinaire, who tells Marty that he's stepping in to "help you not suck". Tim has Marty's wife cut her hair, he places an oil painting of an eagle over his fireplace, and even replaces the pugs with two more American-looking dogs. Before they know it, Tim has turned Marty into a formidable opponent for Cam Brady, willing to stoop to ruthless tactics to get ahead in the polls. It's not very long until the entire campaign becomes a mix of inane antics, including sex tapes and punching babies.

It's timely that the film comes out months before the 2012 Presidential election, but the film does not make any particular stance or take an individual side. It's the process that's attacked. Scheming and lying, it's surprising how quickly the campaign becomes about getting the best of your opponent and not about any of the policies and people you pledged to uphold and protect. We have never had a campaign where one candidate videotaped himself having sex with his opponent's wife and then sold it to the nearest news group, nor has a candidate been inept enough to punch a baby, but it is not incorrect to call political campaigning a farce, and The Campaign illustrates the most extreme political farce you can find.

But I will be honest, The Campaign works best as a straight comedy than a satire, led by the film's two great leads. Ferrell, mixing his Saturday Night Live impression of George W. Bush and his character Nascar driver Ricky Bobby, gets laughs in his usual in his usual manner, with a character filled oblivious egomania, but seething with sentimentality underneath. Galifianakis, always an eccentric, plays Marty with true earnest. It's a bit of a turn for Galifianakis, who manages to not only get the film's best laughs, but also the film's most solid turning points. Aykroyd, Lithgow, McDermott, and even Brian Cox as Marty's insensitive father, also get good giggles.

The film was directed by Jay Roach, of Austin Powers and Meet The Parents fame. He's also directed the political television movies Recount and Game Change. This movie seems to be a sensible meeting between the two. But as I mentioned earlier, the film wisely avoids red state/blue state alliances (Brady is a dopey Democrat, Higgins is a tight-laced Republican), but the film may be the best political campaign film since the Mike Nichols 1998 film Primary Colors. Not that there is a whole lot of quality in that particular sub-genre of political films, but The Campaign is a good laugh that's raunchy but not raunchy enough to overlap the comedy. I enjoyed watching comedic veterans like Ferrell and Galifianakis expand a bit, even if it's microscopic.

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