Jacob Tilley critically reviews Jay Roache’s 2012 American political satire, The Campaign, starring Will Ferrel and Zach Galifianakis.
At first glance, you might think that satirising American politics would be easy. The gaffes are numerous. The candidates are preening, polished and preposterous. The Tea Party, Fox News, George Bush, Sarah Palin; the list goes on and on. As a fruit on the tree of parody, it seems ripe for the plucking.
But then how do you conjure up something more ridiculous than a vice-presidential candidate that makes up her own words (to be fair ‘squirmish’ is a good one. The Bard himself would’ve been proud) and holds the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea amongst her allies? How do you out-nonsense a State Senator who believes homosexuality is on a par with bestiality? How do you create a character more out of touch with the common man than a presidential nominee who believes the windows on planes should open? The short answer is that you can’t.
In The Campaign, Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, an incumbent, Democratic Congressman from South Carolina with a Clinton-esque libido. Running for his fifth term unopposed, he mistakenly leaves a drunken voice message meant for one of his conquests on the answering machine of an extremely religious southern family.
The Motch brothers, Dan Akyroyd and John Lithgow, (a thinly veiled imitation of real-life political puppet masters the Koch brothers), who have hatched a sinister plan to ‘in-source’ Chinese workers to the US to maximise their profits, decide that Brady is no longer of any use to them, and pluck country bumpkin Marty Huggins from obscurity to run against him on the Republican ticket. Brady initially humiliates him at an openly hostile brunch but when the Motch brothers hire Tim Wattley, a shark-eyed, political adviser, played brilliantly by Dylan McDermott, to run his campaign, the tide begins to turn in Huggins’ favour.
What follows is an hour and a half of gross-out jokes and escalating political absurdity. Brady accidentally punches a baby. Huggins accuses Brady of writing a communist manifesto, citing a book he wrote in second grade. Brady accidentally punches the dog from The Artist. Huggins tricks Brady’s son into calling him ‘Dad’ on camera. Brady sleeps with Huggins wife, secretly films it, and puts it in a campaign ad. That’s the level of political satire we’re working at here.
There are some amusing moments but on the whole, the film is a disappointing shadow of what it could have been. Certainly, neither Jon Stewart nor Armando Iannucci will be losing too much sleep over this. As for Ferrell, this is a slightly worrying outing ahead of the release of Anchorman 2. It’s a pretty lacklustre effort from him, and we can but only hope he will be able to once again reach the heights he hit in the original Anchorman, Step Brothers and The Other Guys. On top form, he’s the foremost comedy actor in the world, but he’s also phoned in some tripe like Bewitched. And although this isn’t anywhere near that level of detritus, it’s far from being his finest work.
Galifinakis’s weirdo shtick, tried and tested from The Hangover through Due Date, also feels lazily done and although there are a few laughs, they’re not the belly laughs you usually get, and they don’t come with the proficiency you’d expect from such a sterling comedy cast.
Dylan McDermott is the one shining light of the film, and he is terrific as the cold-blooded, poll-reading, electorate-hating and utterly believable campaign controller. You could imagine Wattley scurrying round behind the scenes at one of Mitt Romney’s rallies. One particularly good moment is where he forces Huggins to get rid of his Pug dogs as they are unpatriotic (what with them being Chinese) and forces him to get a Labrador and a Collie, the two highest polling dogs.
But the main problem with The Campaign, and the issue we come back to again, is that when held up against the ridiculousness of real American politics, it simply isn’t as entertaining. Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell’s script fails to come up with anything as stupid as Vice-President Dick Cheney ‘unintentionally’ shooting his hunting partner (though they practically lift the incident from real life and drop it into their screenplay), or more bizarre than President George W Bush reassuring us that; ‘I know that human beings and fish can coexist peacefully.’ Something I know we were all very concerned over. And as out of touch as Brady is, his level of social unawareness still pales into insignificance in comparison to that of Mitt Romney, telling a hall full of unemployed people, in the depths of the worst economic crisis to hit the world for 70 years, that he too is currently unemployed, and understands what they’re going through when his net worth is over $200 million.
When a bumbling politician makes an embarrassing, public gaffe that leaves the public in hysterics, some political commentator will usually trot out the old cliché, ‘you couldn’t have written it’, and in the case of The Campaign, they didn’t.