Here’s a very strong worst-movie-of-the-year candidate, one of the most witless and toothless “political satires” ever released. “The Campaign” represents a new career low for its director and both of its stars, all three of whom have had their share of mediocre projects.
There are many things in modern-day American politics worthy of satire. This movie touches almost none of them, instead consisting almost entirely of broad physical comedy and sophomoric sex jokes. America could really use a sharp, biting political satire with major comedy talent involved. But this ain’t it.
“The Campaign” was directed by Jay Roach, the director of the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” films. He’s since moved on to a lucrative second career making recent-history HBO political films like “Recount” and “Game Change,” movies that for whatever their flaws I often find myself watching repeatedly. “The Campaign,” though, combines the worst of both worlds- it’s as unfunny as “Meet the Fockers,” while misunderstanding American politics at a Sarah Palin-like level.
The action is set in a Congressional race in North Carolina, a state presumably only chosen in order to supply lazy redneck and Christian jokes. Cam (Will Ferrell), is a many-term Democratic Congressman and unabashed horndog, seemingly based in equal parts on Bill Clinton, John Edwards and Ferrell’s own George W. Bush impression, although he’s really no different a character from Ferrell’s dimwitted NASCAR driver in “Talladega Nights.”
About to cruise to re-election unopposed, Ferrell is challenged at the last minute by Marty (Zach Galifianakis), an idiot manchild recruited as a puppet by shady business interests.
The action quickly devolves into a sordid game of one-upmanship, mostly consisting of fistfights, sexual gamesmanship, and various other things normally associated with House races. There are numerous details that don’t ring true, from political ads that look nothing like the real thing to both candidates being in the same ballroom on election night.
This causes the film to fail for two reasons: It rejects numerous opportunities for legitimate satire, and the jokes and physical gags are painfully witless and bad. The movie, for instance, thinks it’s hilarious in 2012 to joke that one of Saddam Hussein’s sons was named “Falafel.”
Ferrell was in four-minute SNL sketches with more laughs than this. And there’s more incisive satire in a typical 23-minute Colbert Report episode than all of “The Campaign.”
For instance, we get the “Motch Brothers” (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), a not-particularly-sharp parody of Republican money men Charles and David Koch, which misses, starting with the film not knowing the pronunciation of the Kochs’ last name (it’s “coke.”) That the Kochs have often been compared to the Duke brothers from “Trading Places”- and Aykroyd was in that movie- is funnier than anything they actually do on screen here.
While watching “The Campaign” I was reminded of “Man of the Year,” the horrendous Robin Williams vehicle from a few years ago which existed only to indulge liberal fantasies of Jon Stewart running for president- except a version of Stewart who never said anything funny or controversial and mostly used jokes from Robin Williams stand-up specials circa 1986.
The saddest part is that the filmmakers actually seem to think they’re making a statement about American politics in 2012. And that statement is, “politics is crazy! Candidates punch babies and sleep with each other’s wives!”
Politics is indeed crazy, but that’s not why.