I’d forgotten that Jay Roach was responsible for this Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakis pairing, assuming the director was Ferrell-regular Adam McKay (who gets a writing credit). It often is easy to forget who calls the shots on US comedies as stylistically they are so anonymous. Roach is as much of a journeyman as the rest; initial hopes that he might be another John Landis were dashed when he settled on the likes of Fockers. Nevertheless, he attracted plaudits for his Game Change TV movie (dramatising Sarah Palin’s running for VP). That might have suggested some political bite, but the satire in The Campaign is mostly of the broad-stroke, easy-target variety.
While the screenplay takes swipes at the political clout of big business (including vote-rigging) and profit-for-profit’s sake, nothing within it could be regard as genuine commentary; this isn’t even Trading Places (to which the Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow moneymen here are surely a reference), let alone Bulworth.
Rather than policy, the focus is campaign management and dirty tricks. Which provides ample opportunity for the kind of freewheeling improvisation that is Ferrell’s forte. Ferrell is always watchable, even when mired by his strange obsession with making sports comedies, and here he runs with the usual bag of tricks as Congressman Cam Brick; nonsensical and insulting verbiage, crazed and enraged episodes, affable dimwittedness. All wrapped up in a version of his SNL George W Bush impression. Galifianakis varies his cuddly fat slob routine, making Brick’s rival, Marty Huggins, cuddly, fat and camp.
Many of the gags are familiar, but with Ferrell and Galifinanakis the appeal is in the performances rather than originality. Doing the unspeakable is usually a rich vein to mine, So Cam punching a baby, then compounding his sin by hitting Uggie from The Artist, is a highlight. And most of the antics that result in a lift or fall in either candidate’s poll ratings are amusing, particularly as they never fail to point to voter fickleness as the decider of a country’s fate. So, without fail, boosts are down to the likes of snake bites, one candidate shooting another, even one candidate having sex with the other’s wife. And knocks in the polls come from appealing to racism, xenophobia, religious leaning or intolerance (Huggins owns Chinese dogs, therefore he’s a commie; he also has a moustache, which makes him a member of Al Qaeda; Cam wrote a story about Rainbow Land as a child where everything was free, which is labelled a communist manifesto and gets a sales ranking on amazon.com).
Supporting cast-wise, Aykroyd and Lithgow aren’t best served, but Dylan McDermott (aka “Dermot Mulroney”) makes the most of his role as Marty’s unscrupulous campaign manager. Jason Sudekis is a good sport, typecast in the straight man role (as McDermott’s opposite number) while Sarah Baker deserves a mention too, as the unbridled Mitzi Huggins.
The Campaign is mostly quite amusing, and certainly likable, but it should have been sharper (even The Dictator, which was much broader, managed to take a few well-aimed potshots). Why make a political comedy if it’s going to be benign and toothless? The funniest scene is probably the round-table confessional at the Huggins’ house, where Marty’s children and wife reveal more and more appalling things they have done. But it’s a scene that could have appeared in any film from these comedians. Likewise, at one point Cam goes on a Wolf-esque rampage (already seen in Seinfeld, about fifteen years ago… ), which is goofily random but entirely off-message.
Perhaps most-damningly, the filmmakers have the gall to run with a sunny, upbeat, happy ending. Actually, strike that. Most damning is the cameo from Piers Morgan. Any credibility was lost when they decided to fawn to his ego.