Political movies like Christmas themed films are always apropos during special times of the year. And since we are in an election year why not. We need movies like these to poke fun of the whole process, even if like Monty Brewster in Brewster’s Millions (1985) you’re inclined to vote for None of The Above. Though reminiscent of other “unlikely candidate” movies such as Head of State (2003), The Distinguished Gentleman (1992), and Dave (1993) The Campaign serves up two of comedy’s treasured heroes instead of one. Obviously the film has no effect if the candidates pitted against one another are talentless nobodies. But when it’s The Hangover’s Zach Galifianakis and Talladega Nights’ Will Ferrell you, like myself, are probably thinking otherwise.
The Story: The laugh expectations are high for Ferrell and Galifianakis who play Camden Bell and Marty Huggins respectively. Bell is the kind of man’s man candidates we might have seen in the 70’s (or in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)), who look to Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky incident as a norm in their efforts to represent the people like a real man. Huggins who seems as far removed from manly things as possible sees public service from more of a good natured, wholesome perspective, so much so that it often affects his social skills. The two meet in the political arena vying for the House of Representatives seat of the 14th District of North Carolina (there are 13 true districts making the 14th somewhat of an anomaly for these two anomalies), and each man, and the team of politicos behind them, will stop at nothing—and I mean nothing—to be the next Representative of the great state of North Carolina.
The Goods: The Campaign is directed by Jay Roach (Meet The Parents (2000), Meet The Fockers (2004)) who is more of a Ben Stiller and Mike Myers (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)) director than a Will Ferrell director. Roach did cast Galifianakis in Dinner for Schmucks (2010) and was smart to do so. And so Roach has what I would call a comedy success rate with wide audiences based on the popularity of his Focker and Austin Powers films, and an interesting grip on the political re-dramatizations as seen in his John McCain-Sarah Palin HBO film Game Change (2012). That experience goes a long way in the structure and escalation of hilarity in The Campaign.
I say hilarity with all subjectivity but in essence, if you’ve seen Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Bobby Ricky (2006), or Eastbound and Down (in its 3rd season on HBO), The Hangover (2007) or Anchorman you know what you’re in for, most of it irony at the expense of children and dogs, and to a certain degree those who like to run for office. The Campaign is slightly different though in the sense there’s an opportunity here to deliver a broader message, maybe more universal than political, in an election year, that takes some of the real issues of concern in America, and around the world, to heart. It’s not all fun and games and laughs at the expense of another. Like the political movies mentioned above, and like The Candidate (1972), movies like these have within that two-hour window of theatrics a considerable opportunity to hold a mirror to our society and social systems and say, hey, look at what’s really going on. And that can be funny. Or sad. But these guys, Ferrell and Galifianakis, and long-time Ferrell collaborators Adam McKay (producer on The Campain) and Chris Henchy (screenwriter for said movie) do a bang-up job keeping you distracted and cinched-in within the movie’s campaign. A campaign with all of its state stumping, debates and political ads provides a great schematic for story structure. This kind of construction makes it even more enticing to stay seated for the results. And because of the underlying message, and in the better films there’s always at least one, Roach and team don’t let us down. I’d even say this is a better inside look at fictitious campaigns than last year’s The Ides of March.
The Flaws: Well you can’t have a Ferrell-Galifianakis film without a little language and gratuitous shock value. Some audiences might be offended. However, The Farrelly brothers, Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen—and to a certain degree Will Ferrell himself—have done much in their ability to “surprise” us with contextual vulgarity and one-upsmanship (with that touch of heart) to prepare us for films like this. To prepare us for those uncomfortable moments while watching movies like this with your parents. Does The Campaign need to cross lines? Yeah, I think it does in once again presenting this American process on a clown’s shoe, rather than a silver platter, for us to sort-of dissect and observe.
I will say Ferrell’s impersonation of a political candidate is so familiar to other roles and impressions he’s done on Saturday Night Live, to even those done by other cast members like Darrell Hammond (as Clinton), that it’s too much of a distraction. I think Ferrell’s characters from Stranger Than Fiction (2006) and Everything Must Go (2010) would make better vessels for Camden Bell’s reckless behavior than what we have here. Then there’s a Trading Places (1983) piece to the inevitable puppet-masters-behind-the-curtain ploy, a political movie genre trait to be cautious of, that as part of this film’s plot feels a little too contrived.
The Call: Spend the ten. The Campaign is well acted, well casted, well written and well directed. If you stripped away the spectacle of vulgarity, or whatever it is your parents would call it, you would find a well organized “campaign” of a movie and its plot to make you laugh in an election year.
Rated R for crude sexual content, language and brief nudity. Running time is 1 hour and 25 minutes which seems like a perfect fit for this kind of comedy.
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