(by Dustin Putman
"The Campaign" is lewd, crude and sometimes a gas, but as a political satire the film recoils in trepidation, fearful of leaning too left or right and alienating a segment of the audience. When discussing what they will do for the country, the onscreen politicians speak in spineless, pseudo-inspirational generalities without taking much of a stance on anything. Only in its depiction of the ridiculous importance some people place on religion in assessing which person they vote for does director Jay Roach (2010's "Dinner for Schmucks") and screenwriters Chris Henchy (2010's "The Other Guys") and Shawn Harwell (TV's "Eastbound & Down") dare to make a pointed commentary. As for what "The Campaign" does bring to the table, it mostly boils down to the one-two comic inspiration of Will Ferrell (2012's "Casa de mi Padre") and Zach Galifianakis (2010's "Due Date"), who excel even in the face of a minor, underdeveloped - but not displeasurable - 85-minute lark. Article continues below
For four straight terms, Democratic lout Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) has run unopposed as North Carolina's 14th District congressman. When his approval rating plummets following an inappropriate sexual phone call that is leaked to the press, filthy rich entrepreneurs Glenn (John Lithgow) and Wade Motch (Dan Aykroyd) take it as their shot to sneak in another, more down-home candidate, one who can hopefully rally the citizens together. The family man they choose turns out to be as unlikely as they come, an employee at the Hammond, NC tourist center named Marty Huggins (Zach Gaifianakis). He's a tad sheltered and shy - not to mention his family's black sheep, as constantly told to him by his own father Raymond (Brian Cox) - but when sneaky, smooth-as-silk campaign manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) shows up to take control of the situation, a new, more confident candidate emerges. With Marty suddenly proving to be formidable competition for Cam, the two wage war against each other in a ruthless game of revenge and one-upmanship, dead-set on making the other look as unsavory as possible.
The sporadic laughs that permeate through "The Campaign" are less subtle and acidic than hoped for, but pulled off well nonetheless. Early on, it is hilariously established that the town of Hammond is best known for the time Rosie Perez stopped by to ask for directions after getting turned around on the Interstate - a sly little detail. The rest of the humor is broader and baser, but some of it is amusing, like Marty's father paying extra to his long-suffering Asian maid Mrs. Yao (Karen Maruyama) if she speaks like a black woman from the Deep South. It's not at all right, but comedy doesn't always have to be kosher to be funny. Also highlights: Cam's profane exploits with a snake in church, his accidental punching of a baby, and a drunken altercation with a police officer. Political endorsement ads are also spoofed, perhaps the best one making the outrageous claim that Marty may be a member of Al Qaeda or the Taliban because he has facial hair.
Out of a lopsided script, Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis have molded a pair of memorable creations. Ferrell isn't at all likable as Cam Brady, and maybe that's why he's so watchable, digging wholeheartedly into the shoes of a big-headed jackass who doesn't really care about anything - certainly not, you know, politics - besides the mere act of winning. As the slightly prissy, disarming Marty Huggins, Galifianakis is a joy to watch as he turns a quirky caricature into a plausible, layered man in the second half. That he doesn't come out as gay when he decides to tell the full truth to the American people feels like a missed opportunity; that very much seemed like the angle the actor was taking with Marty right from the start. As strong as Ferrell and Galifianakis are, the rest of the cast largely flounders and are misused, from Dylan McDermott's (2007's "The Messengers") and Jason Sudeikis' (2011's "Horrible Bosses") campaign managers to John Lithgow's (2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes") and Dan Aykroyd's (2007's "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry") Motch brothers. Only Sarah Baker (2002's "Sweet Home Alabama") gets a shot to play with the big boys as Marty's neglected wife Mitzi, an obviously (until now) untapped comic talent who runs away with her scenes.
Through the course of "The Campaign," don't bother to expect to learn what Cam or Marty genuinely stand for on their platforms. When Marty, who has seen his whole lifestyle turn upside down by the election (his pet pugs are even replaced by a chocolate lab and a golden retriever), comes to the pat conclusion that he'll be the first congressman who refuses to lie, it's a statement as deep as things get. Passing on the opportunity to really get down and dirty and say something of note, director Jay Roach dumbs down the picture by going for more predictable and raunchy R-rated humor. Luckily, enough of it still works to distract the viewer - at least for a while. The third act is less successful, calling attention to how slight the movie has been as it lurches to an anticlimactic finale. "The Campaign" has its moments, to be sure, but most viewers will have put it on the back burner of their mind by time the end credits have rolled. The finished product is simply too slapdash to make a lasting impression.