Directed by Jay Roach
Written by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell
Starring Will Ferrell, Zach Galifiankis, Dylan McDermott, Jason Sudeikis, John Lithgow, and Dan Akroyd
Rated R for crude sexual content, language and brief nudity
Running Time of 85 Minutes
The career path of director Jay Roach has been fascinating, starting with Austin Powers and Meet the Parents and evolving to the strong HBO political films Recount and Game Change. In The Campaign, both sensibilities meld together as Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis run opposing political campaigns. The film exists as both satire and raunchy comedy, and while it sometimes struggles to find the perfect balance between the two it is filled with a wealth of truly funny and ribald moments.
The Campaign affords both of its stars the opportunity to play wacky characters. Will Ferrell is performing a familiar riff on his Talladega Nights southern everyman with a bit of the George W. Bush impression he mastered on SNL and on the New York stage thrown in for gravitas. Ferrell is at his best when he gets to throw down opposite worthy comedic opponents, and he sells a zinger like few others. Luckily, Ferrell is perfectly matched with Galifiankias. Zach has been a rising comedy star for about a decade now, and one of my favorite characters of his was his fake twin brother Seth, who he often dubbed the effeminate racist. This is a clear spin on that character, and Zach has great control over his voice and his strange gestures and body movement. He’s inspired in this film and holds it all together with the big heart that he allows to shine through the silliness. Moments of Zach and Will insulting each other or getting into fights are the film’s funniest moments.
The film presents an over-the-top yet perhaps soberingly accurate portrayal of the modern political system, in which big money and corporation control campaigns and use the politicians as puppets. Dan Akryod and John Lithgow, who sadly aren’t given much to do, play the Motch brothers (an obvious play on the Koch brothers), extremely wealthy businessmen and political players that fund and bribe politicians to do their bidding for the great goal. The film plays fast and loose with its satire, perhaps a bit too obvious for those who are informed, but a potential eye opener for those who are unaware of the corruption that occurs in politics. There are many jokes taken at the lack of substance in political speeches, the frequent absurdity of debates, the media circus, and of course campaign ads. Much of this material works well, but more often because it hits a certain vulgar funnybone and less because it is particularly biting satire.
Perhaps the films greatest weapon are the candidates’ wives and campaign managers. Dylan McDermott gives a hilarious and dark comedic performance that parodies his super-serious work on TV shows like The Practice, and he is clearly having the time of his life. The film’s greatest weapon, though, is Sarah Baker as Mitzi Huggins. I’ll admit to be unfamiliar with her work up to this point, but as Marty’s loving but under-appreciated wife she works wonders and has one scene in particular with Will Ferrell that had me rolling.
Jay Roach brings an appropriate sensibility to the film and it indeed does feel more like a political drama than a typical comedy, which adds to the message the film tries to achieve. With a strong cast and some composed perversity, Roach hits some nice comedic moments. Unfortunately, despite a hint of smart material the film never quite hits as hard as you would perhaps like. The finale is a fantasy, and while the message is appreciated and perhaps a desirable one, it rings false. At least we get to see a baby punched in the face.