25/08/2012 § Leave a comment
The Campaign, Everyman Pictures 2012
I saw this movie because one of my friends insisted it was pretty funny. I was predisposed to like it because it was political humor and Zach Galifianakis was starring in it (I’m a big Zach Galifianakis fan). I did have some reservations about it, though, since I abhor Will Ferrell both as an actor and as a “comedian.” That aside, my approach to the film was pretty positive, especially since it meant hanging out with my best friends. Unfortunately, the film was a pretty big disappointment.
The main story of the film is that Democrat congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is running unopposed in his sixth congressional campaign. Political operatives (denoted by sly references to the Koch brothers), through a series of plot contrivances, sense weakness in Brady’s campaign, and set out to find someone they can run as a Republican opponent. Of course, the catch in all this is that the GOP candidate is going to be owned by the political operatives, who will then instruct him to vote on behalf of the shadowy mega-corporations . The candidate they select is a small-town tour guide named Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the son of former political star Raymond Huggins. Hijinks and more plot contrivances follow, with each candidate trying to outdo and backstab each other on the campaign trail.
Ferrell does a credible job in this movie of being funny without being overbearing. He reprises a version of his SNL Bush impression for his character in the film, which seems somewhat fitting since the film is set in North Carolina. He also brings some humanity to the role, which makes the film more engrossing and poignant than it probably has a right to be. He does get his share of funny gags, including a drunk driving getaway scene, and a scene where he accidently punches a baby, and later a celebrity dog. His screen time with the likeable Jason Sudeikis is also pretty enjoyable, especially when Sudeikis’ character tries to explain how polls and politics really work. However, Ferrell has a tendency to overreach for humor, as evidenced when he revenge-f**ks Huggins’ wife, and when he goes on a profanity-laced rant about how he deserves to win. These latter scene, though necessary to the plot, fails at humor completely; the former also fails, and is completely unnecessary to boot.
Galifianakis also does a credible job, but his role is more of a letdown. Galifianakis seems to channel the spirit of his twin brother Seth (see his standup special Live at the Purple Onion for an example of what I mean) for his role as Marty Huggins. His character is sweetly naïve, and overly trusting. This can be funny, as it allows the writers to get some digs at Middle Americans, the corpulent nature of the undeserving middle class, and the naiveté of those who trust in God and the democratic process. The satirical elements of the film are at their sharpest here, but they are often hit-or-miss, and more often the latter. What hits do land, though, are very stinging. Galifianakis does get annoying fairly quickly, though. A joke that’s funny when used sporadically in an hour-long stand-up special does not necessarily become funnier when used constantly in a 90-minute movie. In fact, the joke gets old well before the movie ends.
What prevents the movie from being a hilarious take on the American political scene, a la Duck Soup or Idiocracy, is its theme: Big Money is ruining politics. This theme, stated directly a couple of times throughout the film, is wholly fallacious. Big Money is not why democracy, and its attendant elections suck; Big Money is merely the symptom. No, the real problem is that gullible idiots are not only permitted, but often encouraged (I’m looking at you, Get Out the Vote) to vote. The reason why so many millions of dollars are spent making ads that focus on stupid reasons to vote for or against a given candidate, or why so many politicians and talking heads quibble over the most inane of talking points (like how much money a candidate makes, or what grades a candidate received in college) is because there are a large number of people who think that this sort of discourse is meaningful, and these people have the right to vote. The simple fact of the matter is that it is shockingly expensive to convince shallow and gullible people to commit to choosing a candidate for office. And that’s why big money is so prevalent in politics. Of course, the theme of voter stupidity was already dwelt upon in Idiocracy, and so it would seem a little shopworn to dwell upon it now. However, this movie could have easily been reworked as a send-up of Swing Vote, with Ferrell retaining his initial role as unopposed incumbent and Galifianakis being cast as Marty Huggins, a man needing to be convinced to be the one person to vote in his state, and thus lend the election a sense of legitimacy. Now that would be political satire that strikes close to home.
At any rate, the movie is a little too tame as political satire, though the constant references to the Koch Brothers and other current events are generally amusing. Both Ferrell and Galifianakis start out funny, though both do run afoul of the law of diminishing returns before the end of the movie. Unfortunately, there is too much cheap gross-out “humor” and broad comedy to prevent this film from being truly great satire; the lower comedic elements simply get in the way. But when Ferrell and Galifianakis do get a chance to truly poke fun at American politics, there isn’t much that’s funnier.