Over the past thirteen years, the American political stage has been so completely fucked up that I’m not sure if what I’ve witnessed is real life or the horrible manifestation of one of the late Bill Hicks’ fever dreams. Anyone attempting to craft a clever comedy lampooning our electoral process should find a wealth of material to draw upon, and this political cycle is particularly ripe for a film containing some biting satire. The Campaign, a lazy, witless movie from the director of Meet the Fockers, is not that movie.
The Campaign centers on a GOP primary race between Cam Brady (Will Ferrell), a five-term Congressman seemingly spawned from the unholy matrimony of Rick Perry and John Edwards, and Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a hapless goof propped up by influence of thinly veiled stand-ins for the Koch brothers. Cam Brady, the professional politician, finds himself in hot water after he mistakenly leaves a sexually explicit message for his mistress on the answering machine of a random family. He immediately falls twenty points in the polls, and the sinister Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) seize the opportunity to put a puppet in control of the district. Of course they have an agenda: They want to sell the district to the government of China who will in turn build sweatshops that will only hire Chinese laborers; they comically refer to the process as “insourcing.” They turn to clueless, effete Marty Huggins, the son of a local political mover-and-shaker, to preserve their interests.
Then the race is on. Ferrell and Galifianakis are actually in fine form here as they tear through a series of loosely connected sketches involving dick jokes, drunk driving, and baby punching. The Campaign doesn’t offer much in the way of political satire: Cam Brady and Marty Huggins are too cartoonish and ideologically undefined to draw solid comparisons with actual politicians, and the scheme of the billionaire Motch brothers is so needlessly elaborate and evil that they end up sharing more in common with comic book super villains Lex Luthor than the Koch brothers.
For the most part, the gags are broad, vulgar, and nonpartisan. The only humor successfully mined from this screenplay involves the two leads getting physically hurt or saying stupid things. And yet, the two stars commit to their characters, and many of the gags early on in the movie hit their mark. As the two nitwits attempt to one-up the other, Will Ferrell gets plenty of opportunities to scream and wail at the camera while Galifianakis gets to indulge in playing a variation of his ambiguously gay Seth Galifiankis persona. Any good will generated by the madcap performances of Ferrell and Galifianakis, however, evaporates as director Jay Roach desperately attempts to foist upon the audience an embarrassingly ham-fisted message about the need for campaign finance reform.
The Campaign could have turned out one of two ways and still been fantastic: it could have been an insightful, dark comedy that sharply satirized the sad state of Republican politics or it could have been a playfully stupid piece of slapstick. Roach and his screenwriters instead attempt to steer a middle course. They’ve made a comedy based entirely around crass humor and broad political stereotypes that then turns around and sanctimoniously preaches to the audience. The result is lazy and insulting, regardless of which side of the political aisle individual audience members may stand.
Well, fuck you, Jay Roach. You don’t get to make a movie about two impossibly cartoonish straw men who kick each other in the testicles for an hour and a half and then shoehorn in an earnest political statement in the final ten minutes. Even though the message itself is an admirable one, your movie didn’t earn the right to give it. And audiences either looking for a smart satire or a goofy, slapstick comedy deserve better than The Campaign.