Lurking beneath the surface of Will Ferrell’s last two big-budget films are scathing indictments of the state of our society. During the end credits of 2010’s The Other Guys is an effective series of graphs and figures showing how the gap between the haves and have-nots has widened severely over the last decade. (This is done over the overlooked song Pimps Don’t Cry that should have been nominated for an Oscar, but I digress.) His newest feature, The Campaign, lambasts our political system, portraying its candidates for Congress as hapless buffoons and the electorate as mindless drones, easy to fall over any cliff where the latest news bite might lead them. That you might confuse this for a documentary on the current state of affairs is understandable.
Ferrell is Cam Brady, a guy who has all of the qualifications for being successful in today’s political arena. He has a cleancut look, a seemingly respectable family and can deliver easy-to-digest patriotic platitudes in a convincing manner. Having served three consecutive terms, he’s about to be ensured a fourth as he’s running unopposed in the upcoming election. However, the Motch Brothers – Glenn (John Lithgow) and Wade (Dan Aykroyd) – two industrialists, have other plans for Brady’s district. They plan on opening a sweatshop operation in order to maximize their profits and they need a rube in Congress they can ply at will to pass legislation to make it so. The perfect candidate for them is Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the son of one of their blueblood cronies who’s eager to impress his father and too dumb to realize he’s being played.
Written by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell, the first 40 minutes of the film are, hands down, the funniest thing I’ve seen on film this year. The gaffes that Brady commits have to be seen to be believed and the fact that many of them aren’t that far from actual events only make the humor more pointed and effective. I am sure that a scene in which an errant phone call to his mistress that mistakenly goes to an ultra-conservative family is even funnier than I think it is because I couldn’t hear much of it due to the uproarious laughter it produced early on and often. This is matched by a family dinner at the Huggins household in which Marty asks his wife and kids to reveal any dark deeds they’ve committed that might be exposed by the media. To say that he discovers too much is an understatement. These two sequences as well as scenes in which the two candidates trash talk each other, a baby and dog getting punched in their respective faces and a new low in dirty campaigning, deliver such a steady stream of effective laughs it will leave viewers exhausted and satisfied.
However, what will give The Campaign legs is the fact that so much of what Brady and Huggins do and resort to hits so close to home. The machinations of campaign manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) to manipulate voters don’t generate laughs as much as chuckles of recognition. Equally accurate is the way in which potential voters are portrayed as a malleable mass that’s incapable of independent thought and will impulsively react to whatever outlandish sound bite that’s thrown their way. The truth underscoring these moments is funny, yet disturbing in its accuracy.
In the end, after the laughter has stopped, The Campaign leaves us with a feeling of unease, especially when you realize that Huggins is based on one Basil Marceaux, a perennial also-ran from Tennessee. (Do yourself a favor and Google him.) That he has never been elected is a credit to the citizens of that fine state. That he’s able to throw his hat in the ring and perhaps become electable with the proper handling is the cautionary tale the film contains, one that’s far too plausible not to be frightening.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at email@example.com.