When it comes to politics, there are times when you’re not sure whether you should laugh or cry. The Campaign chooses to laugh heartily at the election process as it currently exists in this country.
Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is a long-time Democratic congressman from North Carolina who has a safe seat as well as the best hair this side of John Edwards. He also has a mistress and no control of his behavior. He’s almost guaranteed re-election, until he leaves a message for his mistress on a very wrong number.
The billionaire Motch brothers, Glenn (John Lithgow) and Wade (Dan Ackroyd), want one of their pet congressmen to introduce a bill allowing them to label items built in their Chinese factory as “Made in America.” (The factory is located in a town called Mer-ika.) None of the representatives will do it, knowing it would be political suicide, but then the brothers see the breaking Brady scandal. They remember a wealthy friend of theirs, Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox), lives in Brady’s district and has a malleable son. They decide to have the son run for office so he can introduce their bill.
Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) is a sweet, simple soul who runs his town’s visitor’s bureau. He agrees to be the Republican candidate opposing Brady because he wants to serve his town and district. His innocence is short-lived. During his first “Meet the Candidates” event he is humiliated by Brady. But then a campaign manager/image consultant (Dylan McDermott), hired by the Motch brothers, arrives in town to change Marty into a politician.
Ferrell has a habit of going way over the top in his comedies, but in The Campaign he’s (relatively) more controlled. He’s helped by having a good director who focuses on the story, but also when it comes to politics it’s hard to go further over the top than real politicians. Just this past weekend, a sitting congressman and senate candidate demonstrated a truly astonishing depth of misunderstanding of basic biology, and word came out of another congressman on a junket to Israel taking an alcohol-fueled skinny dip in the Sea of Galilee last year. Ferrell’s performance fits right in with that reality. We also see the character has a conscience, even if it’s rusty from lack of use.
Much credit for the movie goes to director Jay Roach and screenwriters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell. Roach directed the Austin Powers movies as well as Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers, though recently he’s done two highly-regarded political films for HBO: Recount and Game Change. While always remembering the movie is a comedy, they’ve liberally laced the screenplay with incidents taken from real life that have been only slightly twisted. They’ve also imbued the story with more heart than you would expect in such a broad comedy.
Galifianakis is a perfect foil for Ferrell. His Marty is a good man who gets drawn into the darkness of politics to the point where he might lose his soul. In a way, Ferrell’s Brady is the “after” picture, a man who has already exchanged his soul for corrupting power. Interestingly, Galifianakis’s uncle Nick was a Democratic congressman in North Carolina who ran unsuccessfully against Jesse Helms in 1972 for a seat in the senate.
Jason Sudeikis portrays Mitch, Brady’s campaign manager, who serves the function of being a voice of reason trying to rein in Brady. As his opposite number, Dylan McDermott is a political hack cross-pollinated with a ninja. Lithgow and Ackroyd are perfect as the smarmy billionaires, as is Brian Cox as Marty’s disappointed father. However, the film is stolen by Karen Maruyama as Mrs. Yao, the housekeeper who’s paid extra by Marty’s father to talk like an old Mammy to remind him of the good ol’ days.
The humor is crude and politically incorrect – make that socially incorrect! – but it is laugh-out-loud funny. After the weariness of the vituperative primary season, followed by a harsh general election with fires stoked by a huge influx of corporate money, The Campaign is also a reminder that politics use to be a service. Perhaps it can be again.