Directed by Jay Roach
Jay Roach directed multiple installments of two wildly successful comedy franchises, the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents series, before moonlighting as a chronicler of recent electoral history with HBO’s TV movies Recount and Game Change. Don’t expect, though, that his return to the slightly broader comedy of fictional politics with The Campaign will function as a deadpan extension of his docudramas—at least not stylistically. This is a quick-hit comedy content with satire by way of caricature.
Thematically, though, it’s a shorter distance between the issue-neutral, personality-driven politics of his HBO work and the policy-averse candidates of this Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakis team-up. Neither incumbent Cam Brady (Ferrell) nor challenger Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), squaring off over a North Carolina representative seat, have particular platforms to champion. Brady, nominally (though never specifically identified as) a Democrat, has Clintonian slickness fused with Ferrell’s well-established G.W. Bush cocksure stupidity, which makes his top two priorities winning and getting laid, not necessarily in that order. Huggins, meanwhile, is an oddball Southern dandy, polite and God-fearing and a touch mincing, a bit like Jack Black in Bernie; he’s drafted by the Motch Brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) as a Republican stooge when it looks like repeated indiscretions will sink the usually unopposed Brady. The Motch family wants their candidate, whoever it may be, to play ball on a deal to sell off the North Carolina district to the Chinese in a bid to “double the already-doubled profits” at their multi-national corporation.
Glenn and Wade Motch, of course, are meant to resemble—by which I mean pretty much be—Charles and David Koch, real-life evil industrialists and Tea Party backers, and the movie pointedly (if, again, broadly) contrasts actual populism with the kind manufactured by both candidates when their livelihoods are threatened: baseless personal attacks and relentless self-boosterism, all worked up over the whims of billionaires. The lack of attention to any real issues is something of an easy out, of course, letting Brady and Huggins off the hook for offensive or debatable beliefs by denying them any at all, but it’s not exactly unfair to play a congressional election as pure, unadulterated farce.
Roach has plenty of farce experience, but it’s frequent Ferrell collaborator (and noted lefty) Adam McKay whose work The Campaign brings to mind. McKay only has producer and story credits here; the screenplay is by Ferrell/McKay house guys Chris Henchy (Land of the Lost, The Other Guys) and Shawn Harwell (HBO’s Eastbound and Down). It feels a bit like McKay is farming out a movie he didn’t feel driven to direct himself: The Campaign has plenty of absurdist touches, funny sight gags (several performed by a game Dylan McDermott as a menacing campaign manager), and Ferrell’s impotent rage (the movie is rated R, and hearing him let loose angry and/or excited profanities is a thing of beauty), but its 85 minutes speed by at the pace of a well-cut trailer. Not many of the laughs linger.
McKay, in contrast, has been criticized for allowing improv to drag his movies 10, 15, or 20 minutes past their ideal running times. Yet compare The Campaign‘s dinner table scenes (by now an established Ferrell trademark) to their equivalents in every proper Ferrell-McKay collaboration since Talladega Nights. In McKay’s films, they’re gonzo highlights, comic characterization through hilariously wandering dialogue riffs. Here, Galifianakis has the makings of a great one as he presides over his family’s pre-campaign confessions, which turn perverse in a hurry, but the whole thing cuts out after two minutes or so; Ferrell’s turn is even shorter, more exposition than vital digression.
The brevity keeps dead spots to a minimum, but The Campaign sometimes moves too fast for invention. It never bothers, for example, to find a comic angle for a perfectly cast Aykroyd and Lithgow, and the Koch Brothers riff never ascends to a second level. Roach and company also rush through some half-assed notions of emotional grounding about the tolls a politician’s life takes on a family; frankly, I was more moved by the plight of the victory-obsessed Ricky Bobby. The filmmakers have a touch too much feeling for their characters for true satire; Galifianakis does nice rube work early on, but some of his weirdness dissipates as the screenplay tries to pass him off as an honorable guy. Like the rest of the movie, then: fair enough, but a little easy. Still, The Campaign is Roach’s funniest out-and-out comedy in years, and minute for minute, laugh for laugh, it bests all but maybe the first Austin Powers. Maybe this is Ferrell, McKay, and their Gary Sanchez Productions team’s way of redistributing the comedy.
Opens August 10