Stephen Colbert is probably America's best chronicler of the terrifying goofiness of our political system, but Jay Roach is surely a close second. Known for a career of broad comedies like Meet the Parents, Roach turned to HBO to direct two films about true, important but also patently ridiculous political events-- the 2000 Florida election recount in Recount, and Sarah Palin's nomination for vice-president in Game Change. Though Roach played it straight in both films, he understand the absurdist comedy in these true stories-- and now, with The Campaign, he's able to bring some Colbertian hyperbole to another political story that's fictional, but may as well be true.
Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) and Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) are both a little too ridiculous to be real politicians-- Cam panders to the point that he proclaims "Flipino titl-a-whirl operators are our nation's backbone!" while Marty trots around his small town wearing Cosby sweaters with two pugs in tow. But it doesn't take too many steps for the slick and glad-handing Cam to become John Edwards, or for Marty's outsider appeal to make him a Tea Party darling; once two Washington bigwigs with money to burn (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) are able to pour anonymous money into Marty's campaign thanks to loose campaign finance laws, the heightened world of The Campaign begins to feel all too real.
Roach and screenwriters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell have a light touch with the real-life parallels, and the film's best moments are always the silliest-- dogs get the best reaction shots, Ferrell once again gets naked, and the much-promoted baby-punching gets one-upped with the goofiest cameo imaginable. Ferrell takes the years he spent playing George W. Bush to create a brand new dimwit with an eye toward power, while Galifianakis crafts yet another unforgettable childish weirdo. Marty starts off a hair too similar to his character from The Hangover or the fake twin brother Galifianakis has portrayed in sketch comedy, but when Marty gets the power of financing and a slick campaign manager (Dylan McDermott), he becomes eerily convincing as exactly the kind of fool who could stumble his way to the top.
The Campaign misses several opportunities to be truly sharp political satire, whether breezing past potential zingers to get to the next big laugh line or lingering so long on some scenes-- Cam's trip to a snake-handling Pentecostal church is painfully extended-- that the film loses steam. Some characters, like Cam's power-hungry wife (Katherine LaNasa) or Jason Sudeikis's overwhelmed campaign manager, aren't developed deeply enough to make a strong impact, and as with any film this broad, not all of the jokes hit perfectly. But there's a genius behind the silliness in The Campaign, in that a go-for-broke comedy might really be the only way to deal with the reality of modern politics. The minute you start thinking that no candidate as loony as Marty Huggins would be successfully backed by some shark-like Washington investors, you just know an identical guy will be the big new success story after the next midterm elections. Roach knows as well as anyone that politics is a dirty and ridiculous business, and The Campaign unveils that truth with enough humor to make it bearable-- and hilarious.
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