If only THE CAMPAIGN would have been 20 minutes long…
Had the new political comedy with Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis been condensed into short form, putting all of its effort into being a quick-hitting, sharp parody of the current state of American politics, it could have been something special. In fact, it feels like that’s how it was originally conceived, using the comedic abilities of Ferrell and Galifianakis to satirize outrageous political ads, a lack of campaign finance reform and downright angry rhetoric between the opposing sides of an unintelligent electorate. What’s funny is funny because it’s not all that hyperbolic, even though it seems like it should be. It’s much closer to the truth than we’d like to admit, and THE CAMPAIGN is at its best when it’s raising a mirror on what our democracy has turned into, moving away from representing the people and more towards a reality show filled with ridiculous characters with money driving the system.
But along the way, someone must have gotten the bright idea that it’d be better to stretch such a concept into a feature film length… only all that did was create a crippling problem for a film like THE CAMPAIGN, where there’s just not enough quality material to fill around 80 minutes. What could have been biting commentary and smart comedy winds up running out of gas over the extended running time and then loses traction with its message when it has to factor in a paper thin plot needed to create some sort of narrative.
The film, from Jay Roach, who directed the more serious and focused GAME CHANGE, follows the lead-up to election day for the 14th Congressional District of North Carolina, which spans the small town of Hammond. Their greatest claim to fame is that actress Rosie Perez once got lost there, but now that their five-term Congressman, Cam Brady (Ferrell), has gotten himself into a bit of a sexually explicit scandal, they’re on the map once again for a heavily contested race that could mean the difference in who gains majority in the House. Enter Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), the Director of Tourism for Hammond and not exactly the brightest crayon in the box. Huggins is chosen as the front man for the billionare Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd, channeling their most heartless and greedy rendition of the real-life Koch brothers), who seek to increase their profits by bringing the sweatshop conditions they benefit from in China to the States. They’ll need a friend in office to take on that cause, and Huggins is the choice candidate.
THE CAMPAIGN is firing on all cylinders when it deals directly with elements of the campaign – who’s more religious, who’s a Communist/Taliban member, who’s more American, etc. It’s sad yet incredible to know some of what’s moving the poll numbers in the film would easily do the same in real life. With Ferrell and Galifianakis in these competing moments, THE CAMPAIGN is really doing something right, and when you factor in Jason Sudeikis and Dylan McDermott as their campaign managers, it takes the animosity of the race up a notch.
But then the picture starts worrying about how the campaign is affecting each of the candidate’s families, and the TV spots start to get too far over the top, and there’s a bit of a TRADING PLACES-type scenario regarding which candidate the Motches are controlling, and THE CAMPAIGN becomes bloated with bullshit what it’s trying to do and loses its way… almost like a real politician.
There are some genuine laughs to be had during THE CAMPAIGN, and, for long stretches, it’s very funny… but the misses rack up more than the hits as a result of trying to stretch the premise far beyond its breaking point. THE CAMPAIGN had the potential to be an all-time great short, particularly if it stuck to the web right in the middle of this year’s election season. It would have shown the political process for the farce it’s become, and would have really forced people to take notice of what it was saying. As it stands now, it’s just another average comedy that has its moments but more or less overstays its welcome.
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