As a comedy, Jay Roach’s The Campaign is perfectly pleasant. It’s sharply directed, filled to burst with talented people doing solid work, and features a steady stream of big, enjoyable laughs. It is nothing if not a consistently funny movie.
As a political satire, though, the film falls rather severely short. It posits that politicians are vain and selfish, the American system is irreparably corrupted by financial influence, and voters are too easily swayed by empty, hysterical rhetoric. All of this is absolutely true. It’s also all painfully obvious to anyone with even a modicum of political awareness, and the film’s failure to rise above its surface-level political observations ultimately prevents it from leaving much of an impact.
That’s a shame. Roach recently directed two insightful, intelligent political dramas for HBO (Recount and Game Change), and I hoped some of what he did so well there would carry over to The Campaign. Instead, the film feels stylistically indistinguishable from the standard Will Ferrell comedy; a la the superior Anchorman or Talladega Nights, the setting isn’t so much a thematic focus as it is a ridiculous, heightened arena for screwball antics to take place.
Just as those films did a solid job establishing the worlds of 1970s news broadcasting and Nascar racing, The Campaign understands politics well enough to lampoon them, and have fun doing so. It doesn’t go any deeper than that though, and while I think that made sense for some of Farrell’s better films, the subject matter here is too significant to be treated so trivially, and that prevents the comedy from realizing its full potential.
Ferrell stars as Cam Brady, a morally compromised Congressman from North Carolina who has run unopposed for several election cycles. He’s all set to win once again until the villainous Motch Brothers (a parody of the real-life billionaire Koch Brothers, and the film’s most pointed satire) decide to maximize profits by opening a sweatshop in Brady’s district. To do so, they’ll need a candidate to remove regulations, so they decide to fund simple, oblivious family man Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) to oppose Brady.
As expected, the campaign spirals out of control, with Huggins’ unexpected rise to stardom pushing Brady towards an increasingly embarrassing series of scandals. As I said before, it’s all reasonably funny. Ferrell is at his most ignorant and petulant, Galifianakis is charming and heartfelt, the two play off each other spectacularly, and both are fully committed to each and every bit. Some moments work better than others, but a strong supporting cast and assured, rapid-fire pacing make up for the occasional lull.
Still, the satire itself lacks bite. It doesn’t take a firm or compelling stance on any of the issues it raises, instead preferring to play things safe, never deepening the discussion beyond familiar issues or saying anything particularly offensive. I’m sure far-right crazies will scream foul at the Koch Brothers spoof, and far-left goons will lament the depiction of democrat Brady as a lazy, corrupt womanizer, but to the sane mind, these are safe statements to make. The Republican Party has a problem separating the interests of the wealthy from the interests of the nation. The Democratic Party is awful at avoiding scandal, and ineffectual to boot. These are both objective truths, and The Campaign isn’t clever for highlighting them.
Roach and company have nothing to say that I haven’t already pondered in the past few years; it’s the exact same issue I and many others have with Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. It just isn’t insightful or revelatory enough to leave an impact, and in The Campaign, that robs the legitimately funny parts from having any staying power.
Lest you think I’m being unfair, I assure you it’s possible to achieve the kinds of laughs The Campaign aims for and have an intelligent discussion on current political trends at the same time. NBC’s Parks and Recreation did so for 22 episodes this past season, as protagonist Leslie Knope ran for City Council and encountered many political roadblocks. Jim Field Smith’s Butter – a satire hitting screens this October (I reviewed it on the festival circuit last year) – goes much deeper in its analysis of the Midwestern political machine, and is even funnier for it.
Political satires have the capacity to be truly memorable, wonderfully hilarious works of art when they have prescient and immediate messages to send. The Campaign deserves credit for trying to connect with the world we live in on a meaningful level, but the material ultimately rings hollow. It contains enough big laughs to earn a recommendation, but only a tepid one. If you intend to mock and critique politics, you should have something fresh, original, and intelligent to say. Otherwise, it just becomes part of the incessant wall of noise we’re all complaining about in the first place.