Where Will Ferrell's past catalog, including "Anchorman," "Semi-Pro," and "Blades of Glory," features absurdism with just a dash of realism, his new movie "The Campaign" hits a note much closer to home, which is as sad a phenomenon as it is a funny one. Though Ferrell has never been mistaken for mockumentary visionary Christopher Guest, the silliness surrounding our current political system makes "The Campaign" look much more like "Waiting for Guffman" or "Spinal Tap" than "Step Brothers" or "Talladega Nights".
Though the laughs aren't plentiful, they are are woven into a larger statement, and this is far closer to political satire than anything we've seen since Oliver Stone's "W." Overall, this is a good thing, if not for the hilarity of the film itself, at least for its cultural significance as the spectacle of the November elections looms.
Cam Brady (Ferrell) is a five-term congressman from the fictitious 14th District of North Carolina. He's a democrat, but he's much more of the blue-dog variety, as he constantly name-checks "Jesus," "Freedom" and "America" in his stump speech. A giant flag pin adorns his lapel. He's running unopposed, enjoying an illicit affair and dodging any and all questions of substance.
Unfortunately for Cam, The "Motch Brothers" decide to intercede and run their man, Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), against him in the 14th. Marty has never run for anything, but his father was a political operative under Jesse Helms, and he can awkwardly claim the mantle of the Republican Party, especially given no one else has bothered.
What's interesting about the caricatures is how they take pains to say "this isn't a skewering of the individual parties ... so much as a skewering of the whole idea." Marty Huggins is an effeminate tour guide who just loves helping people, so they have to "macho" him up to make him fit within his party. Gone are his twin pugs, replaced by a chocolate lab and a golden retriever, because those dogs "test well".
Cam Brady isn't a rehash of Will Ferrell's George W. Bush impression, quite the contrary; he goes out of his way to affect an entirely new accent and persona. Cam is highly competitive, but articulate in a "politician" sort of way. He connects with people, though it's apparent that it's all style over substance.
The hardest stance the film takes is with Glen (John Lithgow) and Wade Motch (Dan Aykroyd), preening and wheeling hucksters who are clearly are a play on The Koch Brothers, and a not-too-subtle one at that. In "The Campaign," the brothers want to bring a Chinese factory to North Carolina and waive the minimum wage. They'll need a Congressman in their pockets to do so, which is precisely where Marty comes in. Though the game is rigged, "The Campaign" takes great and deliberate joy in laughing at the entire enterprise.
Supporting actor Jason Sudeikis is largely misused, but Dylan McDermott scores copious amounts of laughs with his take on political operatives.
Where "The Campaign" is at its strongest is in the "debate" and "political advertising" moments. The debates are handled with all the gravitas of the fight scenes from "Rocky IV", only with none of the actual significance. It's a battle of who can out "catch phrase" the other, but everyone involved in the process looks like a straight up fool. The fake political ads are even better, so over the top and sinister, at one point even going the pornographic route. It's all in an effort to entertain, but it also reveals something about how elections are currently run -- and you don't want to see that sausage made.
Also compelling is how willing political commentators like Chris Matthews, Wolf Blitzer and whoever does "Morning Joe" were to examine the facile nature of their profession. As CNN, FOX and MSNBC breathlessly report each and every last Brady / Huggins altercation, it becomes clear, once again, that these types of stories aren't far enough from the truth to provide any real solace.
Are there laughs? Certainly. But, just as in the final scenes of "The Other Guys," the comedy is tacked onto a guy waiving his hands and begging you to notice that the joke is on us, the audience. This effort at tackling something "bigger" certainly drains the comedic vibe. But it's probably worth attempting.
During the"The Campaign," you'll have to laugh. Will and Zack will see to that, prodding and poking until you succumb. But the end goal? The takeaway? Maybe just that we're all unwitting accomplices in this grand comic tragedy.