Angry comedy can be the best comedy. And THE CAMPAIGN, for most of its running time, is very angry. It's a lot smarter than the trailers seem to indicate, but it really shouldn't be a surprise, considering the people involved - Jay Roach, who not only directed the Austin Powers movies but also RECOUNT, the HBO film about the 2000 Presidential elections, knows his way around both comedy and politics. Screenwriters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell helped write and produce EASTBOUND AND DOWN, so they can hit their targets pretty accurately.
Then, you have Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, who pull no punches (literally, at some points), who have always been brave when it comes to their comedy, going whereever it takes for a laugh. But they never forget that they're making a point, too - THE CAMPAIGN has a lot to say about the game of politics in the United States right now, and if you're a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or independent, I think the movie has something to say to all of us right now, and that's this - politics, as we know it, is a joke.
There's not one moment in THE CAMPAIGN where Cam Brady (Farrell) or Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), in their stump speeches, say anything of importance or value. Instead, it's all buzz words, "family values", and telling their audiences exactly what they want to hear. Brady finds himself in a situation that he's not exactly used to - he's been congressman for Hammond, North Carolina for 10 years, all of them unopposed. But after a sex scandal puts him in a bad light, the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Ackroyd, practically playing the Duke brothers from TRADING PLACES) decide to back a new horse, Marty Huggins, who before running for office was a tour guide for Hammond. Marty's an embarrassment to his dad (Brian Cox) and mostly clueless about politics, so the Motchs bring in Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) to sharpen his image.
Cam isn't used to competition, and Marty is out of his element. So as the two constantly try to one up each other to win, they make a national farce out of their race. Doesn't matter to the Motch brothers who wins anyway - all they want is to build a Chinese factory in Hammond's district, and "insource" cheap-paying labor. If Brady or Huggins starts to lag in the polls, they'll just switch to the other candidate. In this election, whoever wins, we'll all really lose.
It's difficult to review this movie on its face - it's very funny, with moments that made me have to catch my breath, as Cam and Marty each try to outdo the other, from commercials, to interfering with each other's families, to all-out warfare. As comedies go, this is one of the funniest of the year. But it's what THE CAMPAIGN has to say that gives the movie real weight. The specter of the Citizens United ruling informs the movie - THE CAMPAIGN isn't naive enough to say that without it things would be so much better, but it certainly lets us know that politics right now seem to be the worst they've ever been. As the Motch brothers (thinly veiled caricatures of the Koch brothers) influence the election with their limitless money, they yank Cam and Marty around like puppets, and the more they spend, the more outrageous their candidate's behavior becomes. It's all very funny in the movie, but one can't help but think that the reality might not be as far off as we would like, either.
The major drawback to the movie, to me, is while Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis don't hold back in their performances, the movie takes an about-face in the final moments to try to wrap things up with a happy ending. Considering the work the screenwriters did with EASTBOUND AND DOWN, I was actually hoping that the movie would end on a much darker, more mean-spirited note. The corrupting power of money in politics is all over THE CAMPAIGN, but in its final moments there remains an optimism about our American values that didn't seem to fit the message of the movie. Those are nice ideals, that our votes and our values really do matter when confronted with all that money and power, but the reality these days seems to be quite different. People coming out of THE CAMPAIGN will come out laughing and satisfied, I'm sure, but right now we could use a little bit of dissatisfaction and anger, and I hope that audiences will leave with a little more to think about than when they came in. But for much of THE CAMPAIGN's running time, the filmmakers are using comedy in the best way - to agitate, to illuminate, and to make us laugh, even while we shake our heads in disgust at where we're at as a country right now. I'm glad THE CAMPAIGN is out there.
Plus, a baby gets punched. Noisy little fuckers.