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Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012

The Campaign

Ferrell and Galifianakis lampoon the candidates

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Election-year political movies have seldom won many votes in recent years. Who remembers Bulworth or Silver City? But Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis hope to break the cycle with The Campaign. An often spot-on satire on the debacle of American politics, The Campaign follows the bitter North Carolina congressional race between a longtime incumbent, the blow-dried, empty-suited Cam Brady (Ferrell), and his unlikely challenger, the chubby, damp-palmed Marty Huggins (Galifianakis). The humor is sometimes gross and occasionally childish, but more often than not The Campaign is outrageously funny and on target.

Of course, in a year when Ted Nugent is robo-calling in a Wisconsin Senate race and candidates with remarkably similar agendas and backgrounds paint each other in the darkest primary colors, reality is so preposterous that politics has become a slow-moving target painted with a day-glo bull's-eye for comedians. Director Jay Roach (who previously helmed HBO's Game Change) and screenwriters Shawn Harwell and Chris Henchy laugh at both parties in a tweedledee, tweedledum world where the sour tune is called by the big spenders and their Super PACs.

If Democratic incumbent Brady is Tweedledee and his Republican challenger Huggins is Tweedledum, the real villains are the Machiavellian Motch brothers (John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd), stand-ins for the real-life plutocrats called Koch. Terming their economic scheme "insourcing," the brothers are conspiring to move their Chinese factories with their 50-cent-an-hour child labor to North Carolina. They'll save millions on shipping costs—providing the federal government suspends minimum wage, workplace safety and environmental regulations. They will spend whatever it takes to purchase victory.

With Brady keener on chasing women than implementing policy, the Motch brothers elevate a ne'er-do-well scion of Southern aristocracy into their Republican congressional candidate. They choose Huggins, a good-natured simpleton, for his spotless life and his father's influence in the GOP. Unlike Brady, Huggins has a soul, though he is willing to mortgage it at steep terms to please the father who always dismissed him as a dolt.

At least for the first 45 minutes, The Campaign's humor is scarcely distinguishable from reality. The negative TV ads ("Why doesn't Huggins take a lie detector test?") are almost lifted from actual broadcasts. Brady disconcertingly blurts "Support the troops" at inopportune moments and refers to every group he addresses as "our nation's backbone"—starting with veterans but winding through such micro-special interests as car window installation specialists and Filipino Tilt-a-Whirl operators. His opponent is no less idiotic. Huggins and his frumpy family are given a makeover by order of the Motch brothers' sinister political operative. The cardigan-clad schlep is put into a tailored blue suit with an American flag pin, and his home is furnished with an oversize Bible for the coffee table and an oil painting of an American eagle for the fireplace. Huggins probably believes that Jesus was "the greatest American who ever lived," but before long he crosses his own line of integrity, even unearthing Brady's second-grade coloring book as evidence for his Marxist economics.

Ferrell is fine as the vacuous if carefully manicured Brady, but Galifianakis steals the show by endowing the ludicrous Huggins with sympathy. His eccentricity is endearing. Even when he embraces the bad, spouting populist rhetoric from the talking points of the Motch brothers, he seems almost worth rooting for. But as dim as both candidates appear, the dumbest characters in The Campaign are the walk-ons, the voters who swallow empty platitudes as if they were a happy meal. Maybe even more than the Motches, the public is the real target of The Campaign. Unlike in the Frank Capra classic of a bygone era, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, idealism can be leased and cynicism seems the best response to a Humpty Dumpty system that lies broken after a great fall.
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