For many years/films I completely disliked Will Ferrell on screen because it seemed that he played every role with the same over-the-top hyper-enthusiasm (see: Old School, Semi Pro, Step Brothers, Wedding Crashers, Talladega Nights, most SNL appearances). But when Jon Favreau directed him in Elf, Ferrell showed that – with the right director – there was more of an actor inside him, similar to when Paul Mazursky discovered how much more of an actor was inside Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson. Up until then, most scripts for Williams literally had pages that read “Robin does something funny here.” It doesn’t work, which is why we have directors. For the same reason, The Campaign doesn’t work either.
In The Campaign, Ferrell reunites with director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Fockers) who not only allows Ferrell and Zach Galinfianakis to improvise too much, he also resorts to the same crude humor prevalent in the Austin Powers films. I’m no prude. Dick jokes can be funny, testament being how many times I watch Jackass , but they need to be used sparingly because even a funny dick can wear out its welcome.
Long-time incumbent North Carolina Congressman Cam Brady (Ferrell) seems to be running unopposed until two egotistical billionaires, the Motch Brothers (Jon Lithgow and Dan Akroyd, in a premise too similar to Trading Places) challenge Brady by financing Marty Huggins, an unlikely political challenger and son of one of their best friends. Brady is in the mold of that same over-the-top Ferrell, drinking and bullying his way thanks to a sense of entitlement and idiocy brought on by patronizing handlers, while Huggins is more of a church-going, bad-sweater-wearing, effeminate-talking family man.
From their first public meeting, kind of a Meet the Candidates luncheon, Brady comes out swinging with a video tribute to Huggins that includes pictures of him throughout school years depicting him as an overweight, clumsy oaf. Despite his inexperience, Huggins does not back down but needs the help of slick campaign manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) hired by the Motch Brothers, likely based on the Koch Brothers who have tossed millions at the likes of various Republican candidates in the past few elections. Wattley immediately transforms Huggins’s house, wardrobe, and family into those of a more mainstream candidate. From there, it’s event after event and major embarrassing gaffe after gaffe. The polls go up and down like a see-saw thanks to baby punching, dog punching, DWI arrest, one shooting the other, and a sex-filled message on the wrong answering machine.
As I said, I’m no prude. The scene in which Huggins asks his family to confess anything embarrassing that might be used against him in the campaign is brilliant. I cried laughing, but that same type of humor was piled on a little too heavy. It wasn’t a matter of nudity but more about the language and suggestions of what was happening that you didn’t exactly see. The sex inside the port o’ potty, sex with a woman’s head in a freezer, the sex and sexual imagery in the negative campaign commercials were just plain overkill. By the time they get to the actual election, I was just hoping it would all get over and done with, and it would have been a perfectly acceptable ending if an ethics committee had disqualified both of them and declared a squirrel as the winner.
If Roach is going to direct anything more successful than this, he’s going to have to get his head out of the toilet. Occasionally, we all need a toilet, but only for about four minutes a day and not forty minutes of a film. The Huggins family confession scene was mostly toilet. Don’t get me wrong, it was brilliant, but that line of comedy can get old fast. Another brilliant moment was the housekeeper Mrs. Yao (Karen Maruyama) at the home of Marty’s father, Ron Huggins. I won’t even hint at what was so funny because it would kill the joke if you ever happen to see it. I tried to find it on YouTube but no go. It’s only a few seconds, it’s genius, but it’s not worth paying a rental fee.
The Campaign is supposed to make fun of actual mudslinging that takes place during the nastiest of political seasons, and there is probably more truth to this film than I realize. If that’s what you’re looking for, I would recommend Primary Colors with John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Kathy Bates (Best Supporting Actress nominee), and Billy Bob Thornton and directed by Mike Nichols (The Birdcage, The Graduate). As for The Campaign, it’s a two-joke movie when you only have time for one.
Teacher gives it a D.