The Campaign (Warner Bros., R)

The latest in a string of “let’s just shove Will Ferrell into a vaguely silly occupation—television anchorman, children’s soccer coach, NASCAR driver, ‘70s ABA player—and let the sparks fly!” movies, The Campaign is basically comfort food for people who love Will Ferrell movies.

 

 

Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is a four-term Democratic congressman from the great state of North Carolina who is coasting to an easy, unopposed reelection when a major gaffe sends his approval ratings tumbling. As his perpetually put-upon campaign manager Mitch (Jason Sudeikis) tries to right the ship, a pair of multibillionaires (John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd) called the Motch brothers (subtle!) smell blood in the water and want to front a Republican candidate to take down Brady and perform as their puppet. Unfortunately, the only viable candidate is Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the eccentric, vaguely effeminate head of the local tourism bureau whose perpetually disappointed father (Brian Cox) is a political power player who used to rep for Jesse Helms. The Motches hook Marty up with a good ol’ boy makeover (so long pugs, hello Labradors!) and a stone cold campaign manager named Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), and the race quickly turns into a dead heat. As things start to get truly nasty, will Cam and Marty be able to remember what made them want to represent the good people of North Carolina in the first place?
 
The latest in a string of “let’s just shove Will Ferrell into a vaguely silly occupation—television anchorman, children’s soccer coach, NASCAR driver, ‘70s ABA player—and let the sparks fly!” movies, The Campaign is basically comfort food for people who love Will Ferrell movies. The most immediately comparable film in Ferrell’s filmography is 2006’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, with Sacha Baron Cohen’s flamboyant French Formula One racer replaced as Ferrell’s foil with Galifianakis’ much more good-natured rival. Even though neither actor is stretching into particularly new territory here (Ferrell is basically doing his George W. Bush impersonation, while Galifianakis’ Marty is more or less Corky St. Clair from Waiting for Guffman), it’s still a blast to watch them butt heads, particularly in the candidates’ campaign ads, which gradually escalate from awful-yet-recognizably-realistic to downright appalling in all too short order. The Talladega Nights parallels are amplified early on in a pair of parallel scenes set around each candidate’s family dinner table, where the kids get in on the R-rated fun in a way that gives definite flashbacks to Ricky Bobby’s sons, Walker and Texas Ranger.
 
The Campaign registers as a mild disappointment, though, because it doesn’t dig much deeper than that. It goes to the trouble of naming its candidates to specific real world political parties, but then casts no sharp barbs in the direction of either (save one quick Bill Clinton gag; that one’s pretty good). As the villains, the Motch brothers are particularly weak: their evil plan (selling a huge portion of the district to China so they can open up a somehow fully legal sweatshop on American soil) is not the least bit believable, and neither Lithgow nor Aykroyd make even the slightest effort to sell it. This shouldn’t matter because, hey, who goes to a comedy movie to see the villains, right? (Though seeing them chew the scenery a little would have been nice.) But the problem is that, in order to keep him likable, Marty is kept in the dark as to the Motches’ plan, which results in all manner of clumsy, convoluted plot machinations that bring the comedy to a screeching halt in the service of wrapping up loose ends so that the film can limp to its happy ending.
 
The happy ending, in particular, brings to mind an unlikely film with a lot of parallels to The Campaign: BASEketball, David Zucker’s 1998 comedy skewering of the world of pro sports starring South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Like that film, The Campaign is, at its heart, about guys who enter into the public arena with the best of intentions only to lose their way to the temptations of the job before finally having a heartfelt realization of why they got into it in the first place. It’s also packed with cameos (in this case, political pundits like Chris Matthews, Wolf Blitzer, and Ed Schultz), and delivers most of its laughs with the straightest of straight faces (McDermott, in particular, feels like he’s channeling Robert Stack in Airplane!).
 
But the biggest similarity is also the biggest letdown: The Campaign is a movie starring two great comedians who have done great things before and will no doubt continue to make great things in the future, but here they’ve only managed to make a generic, slightly above average comedy. Make no mistake, The Campaign is laugh out loud funny in more than a few places, and anyone who generally likes Will Ferrell movies will most likely find this to be one of the better ones. But this is the summer that already gave us R-rated comedy perfection in the form of Ted. Given its subject matter, the timing of its release during an election year, and the addition of a comedy powerhouse like Galifianakis, one can’t help but think that The Campaign could have been more than merely good enough. | Jason Green

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