Dirty politics and raunchy laughs in ‘Campaign’
Democracy in action: Zach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell in “The Campaign.”
Updated: August 13, 2012 10:52AM
★ ★ ★
Okay, so it’s not “The Candidate,” or “Primary Colors,” or “The Best Man,” or even “The Ides of March,” but this smart, fast-paced and occasionally quite funny (though thoroughly rude and crude) comedy has something to say about the state of politics in America today.
If only because it actually makes Will Ferrell look like a credible, even electable, candidate. Right up to the moment he punches the baby.
Is Will Ferrell presidential? Well, he’s supposedly vice-presidential in “The Campaign,” playing Cam “Support the Troops” Brady, a southern Republican congressman running for a fifth term unopposed in his district with his beady blue eyes fixed on the White House.
Brady is all perfectly coiffed hair and fake smile, standing on a platform of “America, Jesus and Freedom,” brazenly lying to his constituents while sucking up to corporate backers — a corrupt, sleazy, idiotic sex maniac with a bimbo mistress, a beaming, mercenary wife and two miserable children. And great likeability numbers.
He’s slipping in the polls, though, after leaving an obscene phone message to his mistress on the answering machine of a Christian family at prayer.
So, local billionaire power brokers the Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), who need a tame congressman to green-light their plan to buy much of the district and sell it to China, decide to back another candidate — small-town schlub Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis).
The perpetually embarrassing son of a former Republican campaign manager (Brian Cox), Huggins is a pudgy, effeminate, simple-minded, honest and decent family man who loves his overweight wife and kids and his two Chinese pugs. The Motch brothers think they can control him, though, so they put a million dollars into his super-pac, hire a ruthless campaign manager (Dylan McDermott) to change his image, and launch him at Brady.
In broad outline, “The Campaign” is not so different from Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in which James Stewart plays the small-town innocent mauled by big-time politics. The difference here is that Huggins, after a lifetime of abuse and ridicule, seizes the opportunity to become a winner, for once, and transforms himself into a viable candidate, every bit as vicious and ruthless as Brady — with his soul on the line, of course.
Director Jay Roach (“Austin Powers,” “Meet the Parents”) puts “The Campaign” through its fairly predictable paces with his usual skill, making the most of a clever script that goes to wild extremes as the race intensifies.
How extreme? At one point Huggins shoots Brady in the leg after the congressman seduces his wife and uses footage of their tryst for a campaign commercial.
Most of the laughs come from Brady’s increasingly desperate attempts to crush his opponent with dirty tricks, which backfire, and from the general sense that a lifetime of sleaziness is finally catching up to him with one disaster after another. A fine example is the punch he throws at Huggins on the campaign trail, which misses and clocks out an infant being held up by its mother — in slo-mo close-up.
“That’s going to hurt him with the Christian right,” observes MSNBC news analyst Chris Matthews in a commentary.
Unfortunately, “The Campaign” reverses its savagely funny fight-to-the-death attitude near the end for a moralistic finale in which goodness prevails, life lessons are learned all around, and Brady reveals himself to be not such a bad guy after all.
Anytime up to that point, though, he could have had my vote.