'The Campaign': A Winning Satire
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Any movie that purports to satirize electoral politics in the United States today by featuring a pair of characters named the Motch brothers can't be accused of trafficking in anything resembling subtlety. Then again, subtlety is not necessarily an asset in satire, and the best political and/or cultural satires in the American canon, at least in the 20th century and beyond, seem rightfully proud of being blunt instruments.
I recently saw a revival of Gore Vidal's "The Best Man" on Broadway, and while it represents a somewhat more refined specimen than "The Campaign," the new comedy starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, it does not value nuance above all other artistic virtues. And while "The Campaign" doesn't reach the sublime heights of either the surgically acute "The Best Man" or the cheerily insane Marx Brothers classic "Duck Soup," it does honor to those two movies by being exceptionally good at being cynically smart about the horrors it's portraying, and gleefully vulgar and absurd about wringing laughs out of those horrors.
The movie begins seeming like it might be yet another shooting-fish-in-a-barrel fest, as fresh politico Ferrell, sporting a heavy Southern accent, learns to string the words "America," "Jesus" and "freedom" together for his election-winning advantage. But with a few terms in Congress under his belt, Ferrell's Cam Brady becomes an excess-loving, clueless corrupt boob who makes Ron Burgundy look like Edward R. Murrow. And the movie shifts into a high gear that, for most of its remaining 80 minutes, doesn't have much time to be obnoxiously pleased with itself.
A very hilarious answering machine message scandal puts Brady out of favor with election-rigging job-outsourcing industrialists the Motch (as in "Koch") brothers, played with apt vampiric relish by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd (now old enough, as another writer has pointed out, to play one half of a duo that's mostly an homage to the betting brothers of "Trading Places" played by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche). The money boys invest in a new candidate: a freakish simp who's the non-favorite son of a pit bull political family in Brady's district. Galifianakis' Marty Huggins has a nails-on-a-chalkboard high voice, wears mom jeans that might even have made Carrie Nation smirk, and is highly embarrassingly ticklish. If you think you're sick of the weirdo Galifianakis schtick, well, you might be, but director Jay Roach (of "Austin Powers" and the somewhat more sober electoral lampoon "Game Change" fame) cannily makes the other actors' reactions to his character as crucial as the character himself. Particularly riotous is the chat between Marty and his super-gruff dad, masterfully portrayed as ever by Brian Cox.
The movie's motley array of characters does not hew to our political realities all that stridently, and that's for the good. Making Marty's take-no-prisoners campaign guru into more of a James Bond type than a Karl Rove one (he's played by Dylan McDermott, nicely inverting his wannabe gravitas) is a smart, refreshing move. The movie mixes such outrageously Rabelaisian humor with political insight that it sometimes becomes hard to distinguish the dumb fart joke from the trenchant insight, and that's really part of the point the movie's making.
As to what comes down to the script by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell and what was concocted by the oft-improvisation-happy Ferrell and Galifianakis, who can say, but almost all of it works, and there are at least two scenes -- a Huggins family dinner table confessional that goes all sorts of inappropriate ballistic, and a Ferrell mangling of "The Lord's Prayer" with campaign manager Jason Sudeikis making things worse by trying to provide a pantomime assist -- that are certifiable comedy classics. So, yes, Will Ferrell, all is forgiven after the botch that was "Casa De Mi Padre." And in fact this may be the best movie, comedic or dramatic, that you've made yet. Same for Mr. G.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.