Starring: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Katherine LaNasa, Dylan McDermott
Rated: R, for crude sexual content, language and brief nudity
Runtime: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Bottom line: Side-splitting political satire
The opening scene of “The Campaign” effectively sums up the strategy taken by all modern American political campaigns.
Cam Brady (Will Ferrell), a four-term congressman from North Carolina, is waiting in the wings for a campaign event to begin, when his longtime campaign manager, Mitch (Jason Sudeikis), asks him, “What’s it all about?”
Cam: “America. Jesus. And freedom.”
Mitch: “And what does that mean?”
Cam: “(Bleep), I don’t know. But people love it when I say those things.”
When American political campaigns aren’t slinging bile at the opponent, they are usually reducing themselves to a series of empty platitudes that present the candidate as patriotic but mean nothing beyond the surface.
If you think that’s a cynical position, consider whether it’s possible to get elected in 2012 without repeating the themes “America, Jesus and freedom” ad nauseum. Then consider how many elected officials actually behave as if what are most important are America as an idea, Jesus as a moral touchstone and freedom as the country’s bedrock principle.
We’re living through an election cycle in which each presidential candidate is backed by a shady billionaire, corporate and foreign monies are a bigger factor than ever, SuperPACs can say any slanderous thing they want because they are supposedly not (but so obviously are) connected to an official campaign, candidates’ young lives are now fodder for smear tactics, and campaigns don’t even hide the fact that every move, right down to the breed of the family dog, is guided by focus groups and polls.
From the opening scene until the closing credits end, “The Campaign” relentlessly, giddily nails hypocritical politicians and their career wives, shady campaign financiers, a news media hungry for any sensational story, and yes, us voters whose passions and short memory spans make us gullible enough to buy into all of it.
“The Campaign” is a riotous piece of populist satire. It’s often silly but occasionally surprisingly smart, and it works so well largely because of how disgusting real American politics has become. In a different election year, many things in this movie might have seemed too over-the-top. But in 2012, remarkably, even the most ridiculous gags and jabs carry the ring of truth.
Congressmen Brady is a swaggering, vain, unscrupulous adulterer who has enjoyed four unopposed elections, a streak that ends when the billionaire Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) decide they need a new straw man to represent Brady’s district.
They choose Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the wimpy but kind-hearted outcast of an old political family, and bring in a cold-hearted killer of a campaign manager (Dylan McDermott) to make over Marty, his wife (Sarah Baker), and kids (Grant Goodman and Kya Haywood).
Marty struggles to maintain his ideals while Brady struggles to find some ideals as the campaign grows nastier each day, which calls many elements of our electoral process into question.
But for as much as it satirizes American politics, “The Campaign” never pretends to be anything except a comedy. And it happens to be one of the funniest of the year.
Ferrell and Galifianakis each turn in what are possibly the best comedic roles of their careers.
The movie also offers two breakout performances. Katherine LaNasa steals scenes as a political wife who is even less moral than her husband. Karen Maruyama plays the Huggins family’s maid, whom Marty’s father (Brian Cox) forces to — on second thought, I won’t tell you that part because I don’t want to spoil one of the best surprises of the movie. Maruyama’s performance is brilliant, let’s leave it at that.
“The Campaign” doesn’t aspire to be like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or any other earnest, faith-restoring movie classic. Its best quality is that it’s merely trying to inspire us to take politics less seriously.
If it also leads people to think a little more critically about this year’s election, then who knows? Maybe we will start calling it a classic.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.