Man, what I wouldn’t give for a good, nasty political comedy right about now — one that sticks it to the blowhards, greedheads, and wing-nuts on both sides, skewers the media, follows the money, reveals the campaign process as a pandering farce. When was the last film on the subject that dared to draw blood? “In the Loop” in 2009? “Wag the Dog” in 1997?
“The Campaign” isn’t that movie, and it doesn’t try to be until its fumbling final half-hour. It’s just another happily idiotic Will Ferrell comedy, ably directed by Jay Roach (“Meet the Parents,” “Dinner for Schmucks”) and tossing its bawdy jokes at the side of the barn. Enough of them connect for a fair amount of indecent laughs to be had, but you can’t help thinking the filmmakers picked the wrong barn.
Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a fatuous North Carolina congressman initially running unopposed in his upcoming election. (The role’s just Ron Burgundy with a touch of Dubya thrown in, but that’s fine by me, since “Anchorman” is probably the only movie Ferrell will be remembered for in 30 years.) The film’s villains — the Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), a pair of right-wing billionaire kingmakers whose resemblance to the Koch brothers is as subtle as a cinder block — engineer an opponent so they can proceed with their plans to sell part of the state to the Chinese (!). Their chosen candidate is Marty Huggins, played by Zach Galifianakis in his “Due Date” prissypants mode.
The best jokes in “The Campaign” have to do with the escalating war of images between Cam and Marty, in which each tries to take the patriotic high road while pushing his opponent further into the muck. The movie views campaigning, not unreasonably, as spy-vs.-spy pranksterism. Marty gets Cam drunk and arrested for DUI; Cam has sex with Marty’s wife (Sarah Baker) and releases the video as a campaign ad. Cam accidentally punches a baby and follows up by punching Uggie from “The Artist.” As comedy, the movie’s (literally) hit-and-miss. As satire, it’s barely trying.
A few bits sting: Cam’s stump-speech mantra of “America, freedom, and Jesus”; a scene in which a fresh-faced intern (Aaron Jay Rome) suggests tackling the issues and is summarily hustled out of the room. I liked the tour of various religious services, Marty trying on a Jewish “yamaha” for the first time and Cam getting bitten by a revival-meeting snake. The most subversive idea in “The Campaign,” though, is also its most traditional: that beneath the tectonic hairdos, our elected officials are cretins and crooks. I wonder if more people will see this movie than will bother to vote.
After a while, “The Campaign” decides it wants to be a sentimental, uplifting Frank Capra movie, with one of the candidates resisting the Motch brothers’ nefarious plans and taking a stand for campaign finance reform and the little people. This is disastrous, not because the ideas aren’t worth addressing but because the script (by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell) isn’t equipped to deal with them. The movie’s a cartoon and a naive one at that, and if neocons and Tea Partiers want to accuse the filmmakers of pushing a “Hollywood agenda,” they can rest easy knowing the movie’s politics are so fuzzy as to be useless. Mentioning the Citizens United case once during the end credits doesn’t count as sustained civic discourse.
Anyway, audiences don’t want satire or the issues. They want a big, dopey summer comedy that confirms their cynicism without challenging it. So here it is. As with politicians, we get the political movies we deserve.