People who think a lot about movies tend to put directors in tidy boxes. Call it a remnant of the auteur theory, but we don’t quite know what to do with directors who dabble about in ways that don’t fit an easily defined artistic compartment.
Take The Campaign’s director, Jay Roach, for example. He’s a comedy guy, according to that convenient narrative. He’s the guy who introduced the world to Austin Powers and Greg Focker, whose movies are about doing anything for a belly laugh. But Roach is also a guy who has a more acerbic, down-to-earth sense of the political process, having steered the made-for-cable stories of the 2000 presidential election (Recount) and the Sarah Palin phenomenon (Game Change). Clearly, there are two very distinct creative personalities to this filmmaker. So what happens when he tries to be both at the same time?
The result is The Campaign, which opens with the re-election bid of Democratic North Carolina congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell). And after eight years, he stands for nothing but saying whatever he has to say to get elected, even if he doesn’t understand what he’s saying and is generally more interested in getting laid. This time around, it doesn’t seem like it will matter, since he’s going to run unopposed. But a pair of powerful businessmen, the Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), have big plans for the district that require a patsy. And they think they’ve found one in Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the earnest head of the local tourism board who’s thrilled at the opportunity to help his community, and maybe also prove to his dad (Brian Cox) that he’s not a loser.
Thus begins a war between two supremely unqualified candidates that sometimes feels fueled by pure envelope-pushing crudeness—which is when it’s at its funniest. Screenwriters Chris Henchy (Ferrell’s The Other Guys) and Shawn Harwell (Eastbound & Down) concoct a number of terrific over-the-top moments: the vulgar wrong-number phone call from Brady to his mistress that winds up going public; the insistence by Huggins’ old-South dad that his Asian-American housekeeper speak like a sassy black woman; the series of confessions that ensues when Huggins asks his family members about any embarrassing secrets that could come back to hurt the campaign. When it’s content to indulge in pure, unadulterated anarchy—like creating a Brady campaign ad celebrating his infidelity with a hot babe—The Campaign hits its comedic targets.
But Roach and company also want to offer up caustic commentary on the nature of the American political process, and they don’t really know how to make that work in a movie that also includes a baby getting punched in the face. He finds a couple of effectively absurd moments in the reactions of partisans to the candidates’ pointless, distracting character attacks, like Huggins turning a story Brady wrote in second grade into proof of his opponent’s latent socialism. And then there are moments when The Campaign starts to get way too sincere about wagging its finger at mud-slinging, vapid politicking, including the protestations of Brady’s longtime campaign manager (Jason Sudeikis) about the ruthlessness of his tactics, and speeches about the corrupting influence of money, all accompanied by the now-obligatory cameos by real-life TV pundits. Sacha Baron Cohen may be able to mix scathing political commentary with dick jokes, but clearly that’s a harder trick to pull off than it looks.
The Campaign feels most frustratingly tone-deaf in its use of the Motch brothers, who are intended as stand-ins for the Koch brothers. They are played almost completely straight in their scheming manipulations as they try to “insource” Chinese workers for their factories. With smirking references to Citizen United and applause lines directed at the greedy corporate villains, the film slips into pandering populism that, however well-intentioned it might be, just doesn’t work when mixed in with the familiar comedy of obliviousness that has served both Ferrell and Galifianakis well in recent years. The result is something that tries to be outrageous and outraged in equal measure, blunting the effectiveness of both approaches. In making his other films, Roach should have learned at least one simple truth about politics: There’s almost nothing more important than staying “on message.”
Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis