Normally, I tend to appreciate films that clock in at under 90 minutes — especially comedies that all too often overstay their welcome these days. The problem with The Campaign is that it feels so much longer than 85 minutes and seems padded to get to that length. Bear in mind, this is coming from someone who has liked both Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis in specific roles in the past, but who does not find them inherently funny (especially when left to their own devices). Ferrell in particular is one of those comedians who seems to have never met a gag he didn’t want to milk for far more than it was worth. That’s exactly what happens here — several times — along with all the seemingly obligatory Ferrell schtick (are there really people who want to see the fellow without his clothes on?).
It wouldn’t be noteworthy in the least as just another Will Ferrell picture, but The Campaign had the potential to be a blistering political satire. What we get is barely enough to make the critics for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post uncomfortable. This is no more satirical than a remake of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) would be — only with more oral sex, humor and swearing. In fact, it has a woolly-minded, feel-good ending that’s right out of Smith (minus the suicide-attempt dramatics). It would be easy to blame the writers, but when you hire Chris Henchy (the guy who wrote Ferrell’s Land of the Lost) and Shawn Harwell (TV’s Eastbound & Down), you probably have a good idea about what you’re getting. And let’s be honest, does anybody really think this wasn’t all to the specifications of the producers?
The basic idea is promising. Will Ferrell stars as a horny, dumb Blue Dog Democrat congressman Cam Brady, whose whole schtick is telling whoever he’s addressing what they want to hear and invoking, “America, Jesus, Freedom,” as a knee-jerk mantra. Yes, we’ve seen his type in politics on a daily basis. (We also saw him in action when Bob Hope played New York Mayor Jimmy Walker in Beau James in 1957, to which this movie owes another debt.) He represents an ill-defined area of North Carolina (played by Louisiana, which undoubtedly offered the filmmakers a better deal) into which the evil Motch (as in Koch) Brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) would like to insinuate some 50-cent-an-hour Chinese sweatshops (they call it “insourcing”). So they bring in an easily controlled specimen of Boobus Americanus, Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), to run on the usually empty Republican ticket. This, of course, is the campaign of the title.
The idea is fine. The execution of it? Less so on every level. Some jokes hit the mark — mostly involving subordinate characters like the Motch Brothers or Marty’s father’s (Brian Cox) Asian maid, Mrs. Yao (TV actress Karen Maruyama), who gets paid extra to talk like a refugee from Gone with the Wind. Occasionally, the gags from the stars are pretty good, too, but they usually suffer from no one knowing when to quit — and the satirical bite goes out of them in the process. A great deal of the movie confuses mere crudeness for wit, which is not uncommon these days — and which is no excuse. Moreover, the whole thing is geared to let one of the most culpable players in the farce of politics completely off the hook: the voter. Worst of all, though, is the ending, which, among other things, is still peddling that same old load of clams that a wide-eyed idealist who knows nothing about politics can go to Washington and create meaningful change. Yeah, and a large rabbit brings you Cadbury eggs at Easter, too. Rated R for crude sexual content, language and brief nudity.