14 August 2012

The Campaign

Will Ferrell, left, and Zach Galifianakis are shown in a scene from "The Campaign."
With the presidential election less than three months away, "The Campaign," featuring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as dueling congressional candidates, couldn't be any more timely.

Director Jay Roach pulls from both sides of his career, attempting to mix the broad comedy of "Meet the Parents" and the Austin Powers series with the political drama of "Recount" and "Game Change." The movie doesn't have much to say beyond the obvious—politicians are not to be trusted, and campaigning is a dirty business. That's mostly OK, though, for what it lacks in incisive satire, it makes up in big laughs.

Ferrell is Cam Brady, a long-serving, philandering congressman representing North Carolina's 14th District, based in part on former Sen. John Edwards with a touch of Ferrell's George W. Bush impression. Brady serves not out of a desire to accomplish anything, but simply because he enjoys being "Congressman Cam Brady" too much to be anything else. His constituents keep electing him because he always runs unopposed.

News of Brady's latest affair creates an opening two industrialist brothers, Glenn and Wade Motch (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), hope to exploit. Searching for someone to serve as their puppet, they come across Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), a naive, small-town tourism director.

With extensive coaching from campaign manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), who makes some hitmen seem warm and cuddly by comparison, and a makeover that even includes replacing the family dogs, Huggins gains the upper hand on Brady at their first debate and the race is on.

The mudslinging quickly reaches absurdity—Huggins shoots Brady in a hunting "accident," Brady records himself seducing Huggins' wife, Mitzi (Sarah Baker), and so on.

Yet somehow, the script, written by Chris Henchy ("The Other Guys") and Shawn Harwell ("Eastbound & Down"), finds its way back to a human place. Its treatment of Huggins is key, as it pokes fun at him, but when Brady shows a slideshow of embarrassing photos at a campaign event, we see Huggins afterward fighting back tears. He's allowed to be more than an object of ridicule and the clueless loon most movies would settle for. He's a good man who genuinely wants to help the place that always has been his home.

While a little less likable, Ferrell mostly sticks to schtick he perfected in "Anchorman" and has done variations of many times since. Galifianakis, though, brings a new persona to the screen. It's actually an old one for him, based on the effeminate "Seth Galifiankis" character he's been developing for years. (Netflix users, see "Zach Galifianakis: Live at the Purple Onion.") Just as the movie suggests there is more to Huggins than the man we first see, the role indicates there is more to Galifianakis the movie star than Alan from "The Hangover."

Though overly crude at times, "The Campaign" is effective as a ribald romp through election season. But given how well its small dramatic moments play, I can't help but wonder what it could have been had it aimed to be something more.

Greg’s Grade: B

(Rated R for crude sexual content, language and brief nudity. 85 minutes.)

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