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The Campaign Review

By Joe Lozito

Mock the Vote


You can be forgiven for imagining that the Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakis comedy, "The Campaign", will be just another goofy, raunch-fest aimed at nabbing a few quick laughs, a memorable line or two and a big opening weekend. But when you see a comedy that's this, yes, goofy and raunchy but also intelligent and sharply funny, you know there's some brains at work. Let's start with director Jay Roach. He's not just the man behind "Meet the Parents" and the Austin Powers movies, but also the excellent HBO political dramas "Recount" and "Game Change". Then there's its two stars. Mr. Ferrell and Mr. Galifianakis commit so fully to their roles - and to out-doing each other - that "The Campaign" winds up being insightful almost in spite of itself.

The setting is Hammond, North Carolina's 14th District. Four-term congressman Cam Brady (Mr. Ferrell) is up for re-election and, as usual, he is running unopposed. That is, until two wealthy, Machiavellian industrialists, the Motch Brothers (get it?), decide they need Hammond to further their dastardly scheme to bring cheap, Chinese labor to American soil. The brothers are played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow in roles that are woefully unfunny and never capitalized upon. They're clearly meant to be updates of the Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy characters from Mr. Aykroyd's own "Trading Places" but they're criminally given nothing to do.

That's about the only missed opportunity in the otherwise funny film. When the brothers throw their funding behind their own candidate - earnest simpleton, and town tour guide, Marty Huggins (Mr. Galifianakis) - the film becomes one comedic set piece after another. A "civility brunch" that's anything but; a mislaid answering machine message; the worst baby-kissing disaster ever. And then things get really ugly.

As you might expect, the two comedic powerhouses at the center of the film carry it all - though there's a sturdy supporting cast behind them. It's as if the healthy competition between the two men forced each to up his game. The Cam character starts as a slight tweak on Mr. Ferrell's well-worn George W. Bush impression but becomes surprisingly much deeper, and as for Mr. Galifianakis, well, bless his heart. He performs a tight-rope walk between caricature (the hair, the mustache, the effeminate Edie McClurg accent) and human being. Mr. Galifianakis is known as a comedian but he's a truly under-rated actor. Time and again ("Bored to Death", "Dinner for Schmucks", "The Hangover", even "Due Date") he has taken comedic straw and spun it into a character with a heart of gold.

And as the two men battle each other and the dirty tricks escalate, the film's real comedy agenda becomes clear, and it's of a more subversive nature than you might expect. The candidates outlandishly one-up each other to win the approval of a fickle populace. None of it has anything to do with political issues, of course, it's all personal attacks. The script, by Shawn Harwell and Chris Henchy, wisely keeps the shenanigans just recognizable enough (the affairs, the negative campaigning, the "hunting accidents") to be believable. Meanwhile, throughout the film, a who's who of political commentators (Wolf Blitzer, Chris Matthews, Bill Maher, et al) pop up to keep us informed of the progress in the ever-present polls. It feels more like a sporting event than politics. And that's really the point of the film. In the end, the joke's on us.

What did you think?

Movie title The Campaign
Release year 2012
MPAA Rating R
Our rating
Summary The comedic one-upmanship between Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis results in a raunchy political comedy that's also insightful almost in spite of itself.
View all articles by Joe Lozito
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