‘The Campaign’: Kiss My Baby

August 8, 2012

Here’s why I’d almost be willing to give “The Campaign” a pass on the fact that it’s sloppy, inconsistent and only intermittently funny:

Because it takes a populist form like a Will Ferrell movie and makes sharp-edged digs (for a Will Ferrell movie) at a political system that’s in the pocket of the very rich.

Here’s a movie that mocks the Tea Party, while making fun of the Koch brothers (by turning them into a pair of outrageously evil fat cats called the Motch brothers) and their attempts to buy the laws they want and get rid of the rules they don’t. And it’s aimed at exactly the kind of “uninformed voter” who thinks he’s just getting Will Ferrell, along with the fat guy from “The Hangover” and a bunch of dirty jokes.

Well, yes, there are all of those things (and, for the record, that fat guy has a name – Zach Galifianakis – and feelings). But it also has the kind of message – that what’s good for the public should matter more than what benefits the politicians’ wealthiest benefactors – that you’ll never hear on Fox News (or the rest of the mainstream media, for that matter, which is too timid to state the obvious).

Interestingly, Fox News personalities are not represented in this film. Chris Matthews pops up as himself; so do Joe Scarborough, Bill Maher and Wolf Blitzer. But there’s no one from that channel whose slogan should be “We distort what you deride.”

Directed by Jay Roach, whose resume runs the gamut from “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” to “Game Change,” “The Campaign” imagines a small congressional district in North Carolina, where the Democratic congressional incumbent, Cam Brady (Ferrell), has enjoyed an unopposed run for four terms. But as the election for his fifth term approaches, two things happen: He makes a gaffe (leaving a lewd voice message for his mistress on a wrong number); and the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), decide they need his seat so they can import a Chinese sweatshop to his district (“We call it insourcing”).

So the Motches convince a business pal, Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox), to get his disappointing younger son, Marty (Galifianakis), to run for the seat as their unwitting puppet. They’ll provide the cash for a Super-PAC, along with a campaign manager dressed in black (Dermot Mulroney).

Marty is thrilled – but then, he would be. He’s a pudgy, fey family man with a fat wife and fatter kids – and a pair of pugs. He runs his town’s tourism bureau, conducting daily bus tours of the town for the one little old lady in town who keeps showing up because she has a crush on him.

The Motches send in Tim Wattley (Mulroney), an assassin in campaign consultant’s clothes, to butch up Marty’s act: antlers and guns everywhere in the house, a chocolate Lab and golden retriever to replace the pugs, and an endless reel of Burt Reynolds movies to make him more macho. Marty memorizes his talking points and leaps into the fray.

But then Cam is an easy target. He’s got a mistress, isn’t particularly bright and can’t even recite the Lord’s Prayer at a debate when challenged. He’s also prone to missteps, like battling Marty to be the first to kiss a lone baby in the crowd, which he winds up punching instead. (There’s another punching joke later on that’s actually funnier.)

Unfortunately, the script by Chris Henchy (“The Other Guys”) and Shawn Harwell is disappointingly inconsistent. As always, Ferrell is allowed to riff endlessly and, as always, to only sporadically funny effect. The writing itself is best with the physical humor and when it gives Galifianakis amusing things to do. He’s best as a foil for someone else but is pretty good on his own.

As noted, the best thing about the movie is its message: that the rich want even more than they already have, even if they have to buy every single vote to get it. With luck, there are plenty of moviegoers in the Koch brothers’ camp who don’t actually read reviews but who love Will Ferrell and will wind up buying tickets to see this movie.

Not that “The Campaign” will change their minds – but the prospect of them sputtering like Yosemite Sam afterward is still amusing.

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