Movies like “The Candidate” and “The Great McGinty” have set the bar pretty high in terms of political comedy. Both are satires about ambition, greed and corruption but neither features a candidate who punches a baby. That’s just one reason “The Campaign,” the new comedy starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, gets the vote for the most outrageous political parody of all time.
Ferrell is political party animal Cam Brady, a slick four-term North Carolina congressman. When a drunken dial results in an Anthony Weiner-style scandal just before an election, two conniving and ultra-rich CEOs, Glen and Wade Motch (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) back a rival candidate they think they can control. Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) is the naïve operator of a small town tourist center who is suddenly thrust into the spotlight. The race turns ugly and soon mud is being slung faster than you can say Mitt Romney.
“The Candidate” begins with a quote from former presidential hopeful Ross Perot: “War has rules. Mud wrestling has rules. Politics has no rules.” Neither does the movie; no rules or boundaries. These candidates go beyond the usual name-calling—“He’s a communist.” “He looks like Osama Bin Laden.”—to dirty tricks that would make Tricky Dick blush.
It’s an exaggerated version of real life on the campaign trail, a through-the-looking glass-vision of how politics works.
Brady is the charismatic contender whose “America, Jesus and Freedom” mantra usually precedes a shout of “support our troops!” He knows what people want to hear and gives it to them.
You can’t help but see some of Ferrell’s famous George W. impression in the role, but that in take-off Bush was portrayed as bumbling and cocky. Brady, on the other hand is played as bumbling, cocky and desperate; desperate to win, to be liked, to be successful. It’s a fine line, but unlike Tina Fey and her bang-on impression of Sarah Palin, Ferrell lets go of the finer points and goes for a broader characterization of a dirty politician and not a mirror image of the former commander in chief.
Huggins is a Beltway outsider who polls say is perceived as “odd, clammy and looks like the Travelocity Gnome.” Soon, however, he learns the game. Galifianakis is an old hand at playing these unconventional characters, and brings a strange sweetness to Huggins. There’s a sense of character déjà vu here—the annoying but essentially goodhearted guy—is something we’ve seen him do before, so it’s not a game changer for him, but he is a good foil for the more physically imposing Ferrell.
“The Campaign” has its share of fun and funny commentary. The plan to create “insourcing”—moving Chinese factories and workers to America to save on shipping costs—is funny, (just so long as it doesn’t inspire any real-life industrialists), and it’s almost worth the price of admission to hear Chris Matthews report that Brady has lost support from “any group who opposes baby punching.”
But this isn’t “The Candidate” or “The Great McGinty.” Instead it is a slapstick comedy that earns its laughs from awkward and inappropriate humor—and the strangest version of the Lord’s Prayer ever committed to film—instead of pointed political satire.
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