The Campaign Is Funny Fare for This Season — and Surprisingly Fair
With the not-so-subtle timing of its theatrical release, would The Campaign pick Barack Obama or Mitt Romney for president?
Actually, if you went by the strongest political theme in the surprisingly bipartisan script, this movie would cast its ticket in favor of a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent who comes ready with every catchphrase in the book about cleaning up Washington: former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer.
After all, the villains in this tale are a pair of bankrolling Motch Brothers (subtle, eh?), played by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd, who hatch a cockamamie plan to get a pet candidate into Congress so they can "insource" Chinese sweatshops into a rural North Carolina district.
But for being directed and produced by Jay Roach, who also made the HBO movie Game Change, the mega-happy ending (as Wayne's World would call it) doesn't favor the side you might expect it would. In fact, the film takes great pains to keep both sides of the aisle in the theater seats, as it's one thing to show a message movie on pay cable and quite another to compete for summertime crowds at the box office.
The cameos, however, are like a who's who of MSNBC primetime, with CNN's Wolf Blitzer as the moderate anchor (in a rather funny performance, considering the "stories" he deadpan reports) and Dennis Miller coming from the right. (Missing: politician cameos, even as small as John McCain in Wedding Crashers or as plenty as in Dave.) Instead of blatant hyperpartisan digs at either side, the script puts Hangover-style humor first, mocking recent political incidents second, and any political message further down the line.
From the previews, I expected a send-up of the Christine O'Donnell vs. Mike Castle or Joe Miller vs. Lisa Murkowski races. Instead, it was more along the lines of a folksy Tea Partier (implied, but not implicitly stated or inferred by any Gadsden flags or "mama grizzly" lines) vs. John Edwards-meets-Anthony Weiner.
Rep. Cam Brady (D-N.C.), played by Will Ferrell, begins by repeating his mantra for a standard campaign stump: "America, Jesus, freedom."
"What does that even mean?" the Democrat says. "Shit, I don't know."
Brady pays $900 for a haircut and texts photos of his pubic hair to his groupie mistress. He kisses up to voter constituencies by telling each one that they alone are THE backbone of the nation. He's a lush with a potty mouth, temper issues, and the morals of a peanut. And, coincidentally, he's mentioned as a possible pick someday for vice president.
Marty Huggins (Zach Galfianakis), a small-town tour guide in fair-isle cardigans with little to recommend him other than a powerful dad, is hand-picked by the Motch Bros. to be a Republican challenger to Brady, who expects that, as usual, he won't face any challengers at all -- but whose favorability ratings become vulnerable when he accidentally leaves a racy message for the mistress du jour on a churchgoing family's answering machine.
Huggins earnestly sees the race as a chance to help his community, but is made over by Motch campaign-manager-in-the-clutch Tim Wattley. Dylan McDermott does a great job as the campaign manager all Washington reporters know too well. The makeover includes swapping Marty's pugs for a Lab and a Golden Retriever and giving his wife "Katie Couric hair" to help counter focus groups that call Huggins "clammy," "probably Serbian," and "looks like the Travelocity gnome."
The send-up of campaign advertising, especially considering real ads that have appeared in this go-round, is one of the high points of the script. Brady tries using his mistress in a campaign ad alongside Bill Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger to prove his manliness. The Democrat then goes after his Republican challenger with an ad showing that Islamic extremists from al-Qaeda to the Taliban have one thing in common -- facial hair -- so the mustachioed Huggins should take a lie-detector test to prove he's not al-Qaeda.
And to think this was produced before Harry Reid's tax return accusations.
During one debate where Brady compares Huggins' 'stache to Saddam Hussein's and claims his sons "Uday and Falafel" are still at large, Huggins challenges the Democrat to say the "Our Father." It doesn't quite go well for the Dem. At another debate, Huggins wields a 2nd-grade crayon-scrawled "manifesto" from the congressman on "Rainbowland," which he says encourages redistribution of wealth. There's even a well-placed "hunting accident" that gives the Republican a hike in the polls.
In summary, the characters' personalities are drawn so that the audience roots for the underdog family-guy Republican over the incumbent womanizing Democrat.
The Campaign is a brisk 85 minutes and funnier than the previews let on, though some may find some of the humor too gross-out. The fat-cat financiers conspiring from an ivory tower is a bit tired, and the movie also takes a dig at the integrity of electronic voting, but viewers won't exactly walk out of this comedy with any political conversions.
I'm sure I will be catching this again on cable, though, when Campaign 2012 is a memory, when the real-life ads and accusations will have gotten even worse than they are now (and The Campaign suggests dealing with these cage-match style, which wouldn't be such a bad idea at this point), and when I fondly recall having nachos with Mr. Campaign Finance Reform.