The Campaign begins with an on-screen quote attributed to Ross Perot: “War has rules. Mud-wrestling has rules. Politics has no rules.” The Texas billionaire/private-campaign-financing pioneer dropped this truism not during his historic third-party run for the presidency in 1992, but in the midst of his far less successful 1996 campaign. For its connotations as much as its actual content, the reference is a fitting start to this amusing but toothless R-rated comedy from Jay Roach, the founding director of the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents franchises, who most recently signed his name to the Sarah Palin–humanizing HBO movie, Game Change. Like past-his-peak Perot, The Campaign is basically a footnote, a goof on our broken political system that’s good for a certain novelty, but as a challenge to the dominant order? It’s ultimately impotent.
Will Ferrell stars as Cam Brady, a Republican North Carolina congressman who suggests a hybrid of Ferrell’s George W. Bush caricature and Bill Clinton’s most spoofable horn-dog extremes. Running unopposed for his fifth term, Brady is so accustomed to political invincibility that he regularly makes (and survives) the kind of flagrant gaffes that would seriously damage a real-world candidate’s career. With Brady’s approval ratings sliding following a dirty-phone-call scandal, the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers—er, Motch brothers—see an opening to install a stooge who will protect their plan to build local factories staffed by cheap, “insourced” Chinese labor. And so, with no history in public life behind him, tour guide Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) is propped up as Brady’s challenger.
Flabby simpleton Marty is considered a fuckup by his old-money father, a man who pays his own Chinese maid to talk like a mammy—a nice dig by the filmmakers at the ways in which certain establishment types will go to absurd lengths in order to maintain the illusion of their continued imperviousness to social evolution, even if only in their own homes. But Marty is perfectly happy with his stolidly middle-class life and loving, less-than-glam wife Mitzi (Sarah Baker). The joke, of course, is that a normal American couple like the Huggins has to be made over in order to appeal to normal Americans, and so Dylan McDermott shows up in a leather jacket to stock the house with guns, dress Marty in fierce new suits to match his targeted talking points, and give Mitzi a polished bob haircut—the grease on the Huggins’ slippery slope to full-on moral decay.
The core of The Campaign‘s comedy consists of the Brady and Huggins campaigns setting increasingly absurd traps for the other to fall in, with each ensuing incident breathlessly reported by a media that stubbornly refuses to traffic in logic or offer context. As a narrative and comic gambit, it brings to mind an SNL sketch called “Buckwell’s Follies,” in which Alec Baldwin played a sure-thing gubernatorial candidate who falls out of favor after he accidentally kills Lassie. Ferrell was in that sketch—it ran in 1996, during his first season as a cast member, and his current creative partner/Campaign producer Adam McKay’s first season as an SNL writer—and the comparison doesn’t flatter his new movie. For one thing, the seven-minute sketch has a total precision to it, in terms of both comic timing and social commentary, that The Campaign (which feels pleasantly brief at 88 minutes) can’t touch. Most of the movie’s big laughs are in the first half; like so many high-concept/low-character comedies, it runs out of steam early and then wheezes to an anticlimax.
It’s not a film with bite—but I’m not sure it’s trying to be. Pointers to contemporary campaign rhetoric abound (the film’s most reliable running joke involves the Brady campaign’s baseless allegations that Marty is somehow tied to Muslim terror), and the film’s surfeit of a no-duh political thesis—that corporate-controlled candidates are, like, bad—is both sound and real-world sourced. And yet, the world the film takes place in is as artificial as its backlot exteriors and tacky sitcom-lit interiors. By design, The Campaign is less a satire than a utopian fantasy. F-bombs and bestiality jokes aside, it’s basically a small-town fable, in which just-folk human beings are temporarily corrupted by opportunistic evil outsiders, a threat that is ultimately eradicated in what amounts to a fairy-tale snap of the finger. The foul-mouthed political comedy lifts like a cloak to reveal cynicism-free wish-fulfillment fiction.
Plopped into a decidedly grey election season landscape infected with corporate rot on all sides, the film’s veer into fantastic solutions to very real and relevant problems is almost charming—but like a third-party candidate, it’s also incredibly easy to ignore.