How often do you go into a movie knowing it’s supposed to be a mindless [insert genre here] and walk out surprised that it had substance, plot, and character? The Campaign is that movie. I am not here to argue that the Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakas led ensemble comedy is particularly smart or insightful. I am only pointing out that maybe, just maybe, there’s more going on here than the cast of sketch comedy vets and stand up comedians would lead you to believe.
Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is running unopposed for a congressional seat in North Carolina. His wandering eye and uncontrollable sex drive catch up with him in a way that makes the four term congressman’s shoe-in victory seem ready for a spoiler. Cue the entrance of Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the eccentric son of a billionaire who is thrown in the race to support the big money interests of a Super PAC looking to change a few labor laws.
The frustrating thing about The Campaign is how close writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell come to hitting a strong satire out of the park. The first act of the film is a clever and often times unexpected look at how people can be coached to hit all the patriotic buttons a professional politician needs to master. From there, it goes so far into crude humor and slapstick that it quickly jumps to farce and winds up somewhere around the level of a well-produced web parody.
The real thrill of The Campaign is seeing the rise of Marty Huggins. His transformation from local goofball running a barely there tour business to national media darling of the Republican party is astounding. There’s a training montage, sure, but the how and why of the transformation and how well Zach Galifianakis sells it is impressive. This is the kind of work Galifianakis is capable of. He needs to see more of it come his way rather than always being the unyielding weirdo/comic relief.
The reason to see The Campaign is Zach Galifianakis’ fully realized performance as a man thrust into the national spotlight.
Will Ferrell doesn’t come across as well because there’s nothing new to his transformation and character arc. He’s a misguided guy stuck in his obsessions who falls from grace and tries every wacky scheme he can imagine to come back again. He’s not bad at it, it’s just old shtick for Ferrell when the character, as written, didn’t need to go to those Ferrell-notes in every scene.
When the screenplay goes to gross out humor and director Jay Roach starts relying too heavily on characters reacting to video, the saving grace of The Campaign is the ensemble cast. Sarah Baker and Katherine LaNasa score big lives as the wives of the candidates. Their polar opposite characters illustrate more about the creation of media narratives in politics than any sexually explicit gag campaign ad ever could.
So, too, do Jason Sudeikis and Dylan McDermott wring out every moment of absurdity from the role of campaign manager. Sudeikis, paired up with Ferrell, has to make it his job to reign in a man born to seek attention at any cost. McDermott, paired with Galifianakis, has to orchestrate a respectable persona out of a totally unassuming everyman. The bizarre nature of campaign politics is brought out even further when the spouses and families of the candidates are pulling for the opposite strategy as the campaign managers.
For all of the moments that really soar in The Campaign, it ultimately falls flat. It’s a madcap comedy that’s tries to comment on some important modern issues–PACs, how modern news media defines election coverage, character creation from real life stories–but casts so wide a net that they catch nothing. With fewer sex jokes and naughty sight gags, The Campaign could have been a refreshing political comedy. Instead, it’s a future late night cable viewing that you’ll chuckle at between commercial breaks.
Thoughts on The Campaign? What I liked, I really liked. What I hated turned me sour on the whole picture. What about you? Sound off below. Love to hear from you.