Review: ‘The Campaign’ features familiar character work with plenty of laughs

When we look back at the career of Will Ferrell eventually, it will be important to discuss the work he does with Adam McKay as a distinct chapter of his filmography.

Sure, Jay Roach directed “The Campaign,” and it’s certainly got his fingerprints all over it, but there is also something new at play here that we haven’t seen from Roach before, and there’s no mistaking the gleeful insanity that’s at play in the way things escalate within scenes and over the course of the movie.  That is one of the signatures of the films that Ferrell and McKay make together, this examination of the way total idiots will dig in on a situation and make things worse and worse simply by force of personality.  “Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights,” “The Other Guys,” “Step Brothers”… even the short film “The Landlord”… all play off the comedy inherent to the escalation between two equally ludicrous parties.  

We’ve seen plenty of examples of the “snobs vs. the slobs” archetypes from Keaton in “College” and Chaplin’s Tramp against the world to the “Meatballs”/”Animal House”/”Caddyshack” versions of the ’70s to the “Revenge Of The Nerds” power fantasies of the ’80s.  In the world of Ferrell and Mckay, though, it’s just every freak for themselves, and “The Campaign” represents a particularly lean and mean variation on the premise.  When Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) is talked into running for a Congressional seat opposite incumbent Cam Brady (Ferrell), it is absurd, then it is vicious, then it is deeply weird, and then it eventually becomes a preposterously exaggerated yet specifically angry reaction to the way our political debate has broken down to yelling empty suits of bias butting heads in word and deed.  There is a real bite to “The Campaign,” but it is funny first.  The film doesn’t turn into a political screed, even when roasting Glenn Motch (John Lithgow) and Wade Motch (Dan Aykroyd), but it has something real to say about the way things are broken and what can be done to work around that break.

Cam Brady is Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush character tweaked a bit, and Zach Galifianakis’s Marty is a riff on “Seth Galifianakis,” his weird effeminate twin brother.  And while some might complain that we’ve seen these characterizations enough times already, they are expertly etched here.  Roach, working from a script by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwel, has created an arena in which Ferrell and Galifianakis can take these characters they’ve played variations on for a while now and ground them in a reality where they both fit.  What surprised me is how they’re both able to take these buffoonish personas and wring some genuine emotion out of them on the few occasions the film demands it.

For the most part, though, “The Campaign” is not interested in even a cursory pulling of the heart strings.  Instead, this is the exaggerated inevitability of the media circus that is our modern political process.  I don’t spend much time sharing my political views in public, precisely because there is so little civil discourse at this point that I feel like there’s very little point.  The people who agree with me already agree with me and the people who don’t probably don’t care what someone who writes movie reviews thinks about the state of the union.  I am constantly horrified by the behavior of the most vocal pundits on both sides of the false dichotomy that our media loves to promote.  All you have to do is really listen to the people around you in your life to see how phony the “right/left” debate really is.  People have a huge range of issues that are important to them, and a huge array of reasons for the views they hold, and trying to boil it all down to something as binary as “right” and “left” simply doesn’t work.  Beyond that, I don’t really believe that anyone in this country who wants to be a professional politician is someone I can trust.  It feels to me like it’s a rigged game fully of shady players, and the money that is tied up in the outcomes of these races skews the behavior of all involved.  “The Campaign” does a very good job of pointing out how compromised everyone is and how little you can trust the behavior or the words of someone who needs your vote.

There’s a good supporting cast here, including Jason Sudeikis and Dylan McDermott, but it’s basically Ferrell and Galifianakis, their crazy pumped up as high as it goes, and they both do dedicated character work here, digging deep and finding almost every opportunity for potential laughs.  Roach gives the film a pop cartoon visual style that allows him to stage jokes like the moment where Will Ferrell punches a baby in the face, something that the trailers have implied.  In the film, there’s no implication.  He punches the baby in slow-motion, the baby’s face rippling in slow-motion as the impact lands, and it’s just one of many “oh my god” moments in the film.  Roach knows how to build a comedy sequence, and he knows when to get out, and the film is lean and mean all the way through.  While he gives the cast room to run riffs on comic ideas, allowing some scenes to just sort of meander as the cast runs variations on comedy ideas, the film itself is cut very close to the bone, tight and concerned primarily with laughs.  Is “The Campaign” a great story?  No.  But it is surprisingly cutting about the way it lacerates the almost grotesque absurdity of what it takes to get elected to an office on the national political stage in America today, and if you’re a fan of the cast, you can count on a consistent, steady stream of belly laughs, with just enough edge to make it all matter.

“The Campaign” opens everywhere tomorrow.