There is one scene in The Campaign where Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) warns his wife (Sarah Baker) and two boys (Kya Haywood, Grant Goodman) that he’ll be running for office and to expect media scrutiny. He asks the boys to tell him any secrets they may have, promising them he won’t be mad. The first confession is about using the lord’s name in vain, to which Marty fights to hold back whatever anger a man as upbeat as him could ever muster. From there though the boys and his wife let loose a flurry of disturbing revelations. This is the funniest part of the movie and the only scene that I can remember sustaining for longer than a one-liner. The only other memorable part was Mrs Yao (Karen Maruyama), an Asian housekeeper, being forced to speak in an old black southern accent to please her boss, Huggins’ father (Brian Cox). When I think about it though, it would have been funnier if she just had that accent.
The Campaign suffers from being too goofy and not cynical enough. I expected a series of missteps by US Representative Cam Brady (Will Ferrell), a veteran politician who is in actuality an empty suit, and from Huggins, a well-intentioned novice entering a field of ill-intentioned experts. Right off the bat though, as Brady’s campaign manager (Jason Sudeikis) tries to explain to him why his raunchy call to Christian family (headed by Jack McBrayer) is bad for his campaign, everything done by either of the candidates is enough to end their career. There’s no subtlety. In response to Huggins’ advances in the polls, Brady contracts a nasty campaign ad. This would have been a great opportunity to show an exaggerated look at the wrongs of modern American campaigns. But the ad doesn’t contain a sliver of credibility because by the time we get to it something somewhat subtle wouldn’t fit into the tone of the movie. By the time election day arrives the campaign has seen candidates brawling, a sex tape made into an ad, a DUI police chase, that raunchy phone call, a baby punched in the face, a dog punched in the face, and one candidate shooting the other.
There are some scenes that prove the filmmakers could have made a more clever statement about politics, which, whether you care about that or not, would have at least lead to a better, funnier movie. The civility brunch and the pre-debate handshake are times when the two candidates feign friendship but are trash talking each other under their breath. There are dodged questions in the debate replaced with bad talking points. Brady’s first scene shows him repeating boring messaging to groups as diverse as the troops and amusement ride operators. Ad hominem attacks abound. There are dumb, angry voters who focus too much on the personal image of the candidates.
Unfortunately Will Ferrell’s character goes straight to ten, as it seems he does in most every movie where he leads. It’s too bad, because Ferrell and Galifianakis are really perfect for their parts. Ferrell, even if he just ripped off his own Ron Burgundy from Anchor Man, plays a perfect pompous jerk. What could be better for a four term congressional representative? Galifianakis looks the part of a first timer, timid in the face of the bright lights.
In the end The Campaign does make a ham-fisted attempt at a point about money in politics. Brady and Huggins both rebel against a pair of political kingmakers subtly named the Motch brothers (John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd). But the movie never attempted a serious statement about politics, opting for over the top antics instead, so it doesn’t work.