You know what happens when people with a cursory view of the political landscape as told to them by hangers on make a political comedy? It’s the same putrid result as a guy who makes a buddy action film without having really seen one and just spoofing things in general. In the political comedy genre there are few films that are worth the time and effort; it’s difficult to really make a good political comedy if only because it’s hard to really maintain a balanced approach to whom you skewer.
In this political world, where campaigns accuse one another of felonious crimes and indirectly causing murder in some cases, it’s hard to really satirize something that’s almost an unaware self parody nowadays. Anything less and it comes off trite and dull. It’s hard to think of something creatively, one imagines, that tops Larry Craig discussing his “wide stance” or Anthony Weiner sending what felt like half of America’s women pictures of his genitals. Politics in America have gotten so obnoxious that anything you can think of for cinematic purposes comes off much like The Campaign: obnoxious and patently unfunny.
It has a fairly simple setup. Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is a multi-time Congressman who has mainly run unopposed for almost a decade. He has a simple goal of the Vice Presidency but doesn’t do much in office because he doesn’t have to. Unfortunately for him his predilections come back to haunt him as an obscene phone message winds up leaving him vulnerable in a district that should be sewn up. For the first time in a long time he looks vulnerable and is ripe to be challenged for the office. It’s a challenge even for his campaign manager (Jason Sudeikis) but it still looks to be in the bag for him.
Enter the Motch brothers (John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd), two evil billionaire types who want to turn Cam’s district into a series of Chinese factories with deplorable conditions. They prop up the son (Zach Galifianakis) of a former political power broker (Brian Cox) to go after the office, funding his campaign with their money. From there it’s a series of wild shenanigans as the two engage in an increasingly bitter feud to win the congressional seat.
The problem with the film is that it handles the political process in a way that makes any interpretation of the American electoral process seem high brow by comparison. Jay Roach, who has directed some fairly solid political films in Recount and Game Change, take a massive step in his approach. He’s a good hand to have on board, considering he has strong comedic chops as a director and experience in more serious fare, but he does nothing to make this anything special. Roach has good story-telling chops and the film is more of a series of gags than anything concrete.
There’s a definite point to the proceedings, as everyone seems to be pointing to a political point about the amount of money in politics in a screwball comedy, but the problem is that it adds in a pair of villains to the proceedings that are insulting at best as a fan of comedy. Aykroyd and Lithgow deserve better characters to start with; intended to parody the much bandied about Koch brothers, the two are a pair of twirling mustaches away from being completely over the top. If they had funny things to do or say it’d be one thing. They don’t and that becomes such a problem for the film it never really gets on track.
The Motch Brothers are over the top for the sake of going over the top and not because it serves the film any good. It is one thing to make a political point via gag but it’s another to do so in such ridiculous and absurd fashion to eliminate any comedy from the proceedings. And that tends to describe the film in whole: over the top but without any sort of context or gags to make it worthwhile. A good spoof works because it may not be gentle but it is spot on. Roach makes them generic clowns who look like they’re one step away from tying a woman to train tracks for money. All they share in common with the Koch brothers is a similar sounding name. Parody and satire are tough to pull off and when they fail they fail spectacularly. But they can be redeemed with funny gags, which the film is in short supply.
If the gags were funny it’d be one thing; the few genuine moments of comedic inspiration are few and far between. Ferrell punching various things is funny but beaten into the ground. Ferrell is sleepwalking through the film, doing his Saturday Night Live George Bush impression, and Zach Galifianakis isn’t much better as this sort of nebbish son of a politico who is unsuited for office but wants his chance anyways. There’s plenty to be mined about both situations that goes unused for trite, simple gags that appeal to the lowest common denominator.
There’s a good comedy spoof about modern politics out there ready to be made and with the talent available one would think it would be The Campaign. Unfortunately it falls into the same category that The Other Guys was; a comedy litmus test. If you see people laughing at this film you know not to trust their standards of comedy.
Director: Jay Roach Writer: Chris Henchy, Shawn Harwell and Adam McKay Notable Cast: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Dylan McDermott, Jason Sudeikis, Brian Cox, John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd
Scott Sawitz is an Inside Pulse original. He's also been featured on The Ultimate Fighter.com, Fox Sports.com, Nerdcore Movement.com, CagePotato.com, Inside Fights.com and Film Arcade.net (among others). When Scott isn't writing about film he's making his own. Check out Drunk Justice Productions right here.