The Campaign tries to be two films at once. On one hand, it tries be the typical silly Will Ferrell man-child behaving badly comedy. On the other, it tries to be a bitingly satiric look at the way America engages in politics. Unfortunately, one is often at odds with the other.
Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a four-term Democratic North Carolina Congressman who is a lock for a fifth term, as he is running unopposed. That is until a sex scandal reveals a chink in his armor. The Koch…er…I mean… Motch Brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, both excellent in way too small roles) see this as an opportunity to depose Brady and install their own man, Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) the awkward head of the local tourist bureau, who they can manipulate into changing trade, tax and zoning laws to their benefit.
A series of unfortunately bad gaffes by Brady makes the race into, well, a race. Once Huggins becomes a serious threat, Brady’s ultra-competitive side comes out, and the campaign turns really nasty really fast.
The film is directed by Jay Roach, who directed the Austin Powers films and the first two Meet the Parents films, but also the recent HBO films Recount (based on the controversy after the 2000 U.S. Presidential Elections) and Game Change (based on the 2008 McCain/Palin campaign), so he should have been the best person to marry the silly with the political satire. But he never reaches a tone that satisfies both.
Ferrell and Galifiankis play their roles broadly. Ferrell is doing a slight variation of the same arrogant doofus he always plays in all of his films, but that works for this role. Galifinakis starts off the movie playing Huggins with a Mr. Rogers/Mr. Garrison from South Park affectation that is a bit over the top and grating. But as the film progress, and as Huggins in molded into the ideal candidate, his performance gets better.
Where the problems in tone come into play is when we compare the candidates’ respective campaign managers. Dylan McDermott plays Huggins’ manager Tim Wattley with oily precision. His Wattley is part-ninja, part-Martha Stewart, part-Mephistopheles. He’s a sexier, more dangerous Karl Rove and, as such, is pitch perfect for both the satire and the goofiness.
Jason Sudekis also does a good job as Brady’s campaign manager, Mitch Wilson, although his character is out of place in this film. The character is written as the voice of reason/moral center and, therefore, straight man for Farrell’s character. Sudekis plays him as an ordinary, everyday Joe. This comes of as being severely underplayed compared to Farrell’s wild antics as Brady. The character seem to be visiting this film from another movie.
This is indicative of the main flaw of the film. The film wants to say something serious about the state of American politics. But those statements are shoehorned into a three-ring circus. The Motch brothers are supposed to represent the way the rich and powerful, the billionaires and corporations, have taken away the power from the American people. But the way they pay for Marty’s election, groom him into a winner, and set themselves up to reap the benefits when he gets elected loses some of its power when their grand, evil master plan is so ridiculously absurd (they want to move their Chinese sweat shops, complete with all its employees and their .50 an hour pay rate, over to land they own in Marty & Cam’s district so they can “save on shipping costs.” No, really).
To the film’s credit, it makes no distinction between the Democrats or the Republicans in showing how the political machine is broken. Cam is a Democrat and Marty the Republican, but each shows aspects of the other’s ideology and each is corrupted by the power elected office holds. But the film takes this idea to unbelievably ludicrous levels as the competition between the two loses all sense of reality. Instead of satire, the film devolves into farce. But it keeps the illusion that it really is satire. And that just doesn’t work.
There are laughs throughout, including one especially good joke at McDermott’s expense in the scene that runs during the closing credits. But, all in all, the film’s lack of consistent tone represents a missed opportunity of attaining either satiric commentary or goofy mindless fun.