Politics is often a comedy of errors. When elected officials aren’t ridiculing each other’s policy proposals, they’re making declarations that can easily be pulled from context, spun and ripped to shreds by pundits and journalists on the right, left and center. Some go even further, making such egregious errors that they are booted out of office by a rightly disgusted and enraged constituency. Examples abound, and far too often sexual indiscretions are a key factor.
That’s the case in director Jay Roach’s (“Game Change,” “Meet the Parents,” the “Austin Powers” movies) film “The Campaign.” Congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell as a sort of sex-crazed John Edwards archetype, sans the political savvy) is a North Carolina Democrat who has easily won four terms to the U.S. House of Representatives and is on the verge of winning his fifth unopposed. Running on the slogan, “America, Jesus, Freedom” — which he colorfully iterates he doesn’t understand —- he’s set to win again by simply signing his name when he accidentally leaves a message to a recent extramarital fling on a constituent’s voicemail. Three weeks later, Brady’s poll numbers have plummeted in his once-adoring district.
Enter Marty Sylvester Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a homely fellow who loves everyone and has been the disappointment of his once-political father Raymond (Brian Cox) for years. But he lives in Brady’s district, and thanks to the billionaire Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd lampooning an infamous libertarian duo), who are looking to buy a congressman, Marty becomes a significant candidate with a healthy campaign account (thanks to Citizens United, the film spells out). With cutthroat manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) running his campaign, Huggins becomes a legitimate threat to Brady’s re-election prospects. As the two campaign, the political theater moves from comic to absurdist.
The more rewarding elements of the film are those that can be attached to actual events or long-standing political clichés. Brady, while fighting Huggins to reach an infant constituent, accidentally punches the baby. Brady’s ad man proposes a stereotypical ad tying Huggins to foreign interests — in this case, Middle Eastern terrorist organizations. He also tweets a sexual picture (which we thankfully don’t see) to his lover. On the other hand, Huggins shoots Brady in the leg, though the incident is declared an accident. He challenges Brady on his religiosity (and typical talking points fly, until Brady recites a cringe-worthy version of the Lord’s Prayer). And he plays dirty politics — getting Brady drunk and calling the cops on him as he drives home.
Being a Will Ferrell film, the hilarity regularly shifts from ridiculous to vulgar. One of the candidates decides his sex tape with his opponent’s wife would make a good campaign video. That’s just the start.
But the film’s vulgarity is second to the screaming promotion of campaign finance reform as the most difficult element to stomach. The Motch brothers’ creed is that “when you’ve got the money, nothing is unpredictable,” even an election. One of the candidates eventually declares that he will “never take another dollar from a billionaire or corporation again.” An obvious swipe, this statement broadly demonizes any influence a wealthy person exerts on an election simply because they’re rich.
The stereotyping is perhaps an even bigger issue. Stereotypes are the bread and butter of comedy, but the straw men that writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell created in the Motch brothers (and Ferrell’s Edwards-like Brady) are so ridiculously flimsy and outrageously unrealistic that the film not only tears them to pieces but burns the stalks and then shoves the burning embers in the faces of audience members. It’s impossible to take any of it seriously, and so one shouldn’t try.
But “The Campaign” is a comedy, and its hilarity overwhelms its inherent politics. That’s enough for any Ferrell and Galifianakis fans to give it their vote.
Darin Miller is a movie critic in Washington, D.C.