In these heated political times that we currently find ourselves in, some might think a movie like THE CAMPAIGN would be a welcome treat. Take two box office funnymen like Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis and put them in a movie about small town politicians going head to head for the same position, and it seems like the comedy would be almost guaranteed. Let’s hold that vote, shall we?
THE CAMPAIGN opens by introducing us to Cam Brady (Will Ferrell), who is preparing to run unopposed for another Congressional term in his small North Carolina district. Two trouble-making CEOs called the Motch Brothers (a welcome appearance by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) decide to mix things up a bit, and pit the town goofball Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) against Brady. Marty is a lispy religious type, short and softspoken, not at all the kind of person any town would want or expect to run for office. Armed with a slick campaign manager (Dylan McDermott), Huggins is given advantage after advantage over Brady, but the old pro isn’t afraid to fight back. What results gets rather ugly, and makes everyone start wondering if either of these guys should actually win.
The clear acting winner in this piece is Galifianakis, who is essentially doing his well-praticed “Seth Galifianakis” impression he’s honed through his own comedy skits, and just renaming him Marty Huggins – and let’s face it, even the name ‘Huggins’ is pretty amusing. Zach wins moment after moment with the innocent Marty, making us like him as a lead and laugh at him as a character. Will Ferrell feels outmatched, perhaps because his characterization of Cam Brady is much more straightforward, and in many ways played intentionally unlikable. I never rooted for him to succeed, particularly in the darker second half. Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow are always fun to see on the big screen, though here they’re given little to do aside from playing the foils to our two leads. Dylan McDermott is rather fun as the shady campaign manager/groomer for Huggins, feeling like a reality show host mixed with a beauty pageant mom. He and Galifianakis have some of the best scenes in the film. Other supporting roles include Jason Sudeikis as the Brady campaign manager, a likable and mostly well-meaning role that probably could have been fleshed out more, and a briefly-seen Brian Cox as Marty’s dad – though Brian Cox can make a two minute moment in a film memorable, and does have one of the funniest lines in the film at Marty’s expense. Perhaps one of the most-impressive members of the supporting cast is Sarah Baker as Mitzi Huggins, Marty’s wife. Baker plays great off of Galifianakis, and there’s a very real quality to her that’s refreshing and fun. Director Jay Roach has had a pretty hit or miss career behind the camera, handling the three AUSTIN POWERS films and the first two MEET THE PARENTS movies. This will likely not go down as one of his better works, but a competent effort nonetheless. Roach obviously has a pretty good interest in politics on film, as he’s also helmed the TV movies GAME CHANGE (about the John McCain and Sarah Palin presidential campaign) and RECOUNT (about the Florida recounts from 2000).
The first half of THE CAMPAIGN is rather funny, at times even laugh-out-loud hilarious, albeit rather dark humor. There’s definitely some not-so-subtle political commentary going on in the script by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell, and if you’re not chuckling you’ll probably be knowingly nodding and saying things like “Yeah, that’s pretty much how it works in politics.” Thankfully the movie keeps a pretty neutral stance on affiliations, or at the very least doesn’t refer to sides much. But about halfway through the tone takes a dramatic shift, and suddenly things that were funny get a little too uncomfortable making it hard to truly enjoy where everything is heading. Obviously these types of adult comedies can sometimes get a little rough, but there’s a fine line between “rough” and flat out mean. Certain moments in the film feel like ‘point of no return’ scenes, and the audience may wonder how we’re meant to believe any of the characters could ever really bounce back from what has taken place. Then there’s the overly-somber and out of place ending that just feels like a cop-out. In the end, THE CAMPAIGN is only moderately funny, and mostly in the first 45 minutes. While not a total loss, it’s nothing like what it could have been… but I guess we could say that about a lot of candidates as well.
I should also note, there’s more than a few memorable moments in the trailer that are NOT in the finished film, which gets increasingly frustrating. Lines and scenes that are missing include Will saying “Salamat” to the Filipino workers, the trash talk line “She sucks, she blows and gets laid in a closet”, the “He just punched a baby” line from Jason Sudeikis, and even the crossbow scene isn’t a crossbow in that scene – it’s a gun. Granted, trailers are usually cut before movies get their final cut, but it’s always a little annoying when you’re waiting for a specific moment and it never comes.
THE CAMPAIGN opens August 10, 2012