We're used to politicians talking out of both sides of their mouths. The Campaign is a political comedy that attempts that feat.
It's a rude and crude farce that takes broad swipes at the political system and the people who manipulate it. It's not subtle about attacking those alleged election-buying billionaires the Koch brothers (called the Motch brothers here). The campaigners themselves are essentially puppets — one a crass, lazy Democrat with a propensity for giving in to his basest instincts, the other a startlingly ill-informed Republican whose idealism gives way to a cynical makeover to make him more presentable to the North Carolina voters he's appealing to.
The voters themselves are ranting, red-faced rubes who can't stop fulminating long enough to realize that calling the other guy's pug dogs "communists" is about the silliest thing ever.
But this R-rated comedy, directed by Jay Roach, tries to have it both ways. It straddles the "fair and balanced" fence, making the naïve, effeminate Republican (Zach Galifianakis) an idealist backed by the evil Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, doing a Trading Places evil-rich-siblings thing) and the Democrat (Will Ferrell) a boozy, womanizing cynic whose idealism evaporated in high school.
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The worst thing about the Republican is his stupidity. Galifianakis makes Marty Huggins, a tour guide, likably daft. The plump, prancing Galifianakis makes Marty, who is nothing but a disappointment to his vile, racist dad (Brian Cox), the sort of guy you'd love to take to Chick-fil-A. Or not. The film's earliest comic shock is when we see he has an equally plump wife and kids.
Ferrell is ferociously, hilariously unlikable as Cam Brady, the four-term incumbent. Whatever his merits as a congressman, Cam is driven nuts by the very idea that he has to run for re-election and against this idiot to boot, leading to one gaffe after another.
Marty, guided by a nasty political infighter (Dylan McDermott), has a killer campaign slogan to take him to Washington. "Bring your brooms," he says of Washington. "Because it's a mess."
Director Roach throws filthy-mouthed kids, sister-marrying "born-again" Christians, sex in port-a-johns and wardrobe malfunctions at us. The campaign ads, tested on the candidates, are jaw droppers, full of whoppers and "Jesus" bromides and porn.
The candidates themselves are the biggest mess of all. Marty ineptly panders to the Jewish vote in a synagogue, and Cam joins a black Baptist church choir.
But movies that step on that third rail of filmgoer appeal — politics — always pull their punches. Think of the last election cycle and Swing Vote, which had a few stinging shots but no spine.
The actors are game. Ferrell is in full Anchor Man-meets-Ricky Bobby mode here: loud, abrasive, big-haired and outrageous. Galifianakis refines the mincing ditzes he has made his shtick.
But steering clear of anything that might turn off some potential ticket-buyers makes the film feel as focus-grouped and watered-down as the very campaigns it aims to spoof. A little about Chinese child labor, a bit more about rich people running things behind the scenes, more about them owning voter-machine companies — that's as edgy as it gets.
The one unadulterated, fall-on-the-floor running gag in Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell's script is played to perfection by Karen Maruyama. She's Mrs. Yao, the maid for Marty's bigoted dad. She's forced to talk in a Stepin Fetchit sing-song straight out of The Help to remind the old man "of the good old days," when Jesse Helms was a North Carolina icon and all was right with the South. Maruyama kills, so much so that they bring her back for an ill-considered bit in the finale.
By that time, despite landing more than a few laughs beforehand, Roach must have known he needed the help.