The folks behind “The Campaign” are pulling their hair out over wealthy Americans cutting checks to influence votes.
They apparently have no problem, however, pouring millions into a 90-minute comedy meant to demonize conservative benefactors and the Citizens United case.
Despite the presence of two liberal actors and the director behind the Sarah Palin hit piece “Game Change,” “The Campaign” sets aside the standard Left/Right political arguments. Instead, we’re treated to a no holds barred battle between a slick incumbent and a mealy mouthed neophyte. When “The Campaign” keeps the focus there, it’s a broad belly laugh generator, powered by star Will Ferrell’s best comic turn since 2008’s “Step Brothers.”
As we edge closer to the story’s Election Day climax, the film’s real agenda comes into focus. Trash Citizens United as well as the Koch brothers, the Left’s preferred bogeymen.
Ferrell stars a Cam Brady, the incumbent North Carolina congressman cruising to another election victory. He’s running unopposed, so even a cacophony of campaign gaffes and Clinton-esque affairs can’t derail his chance.
That just won’t do for the billionaire Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), a conniving duo eager to open up their wallet to get their way in Washington. They recruit a mousy family man named Marty (Zach Galifianakis) to oppose Cam (and do their bidding once he’s in office).
Marty is a horrible candidate, an effeminate bumbler with no discernible platform. Enter Dylan McDermott as the Motch brother’s slick campaign adviser. He transforms Marty into someone for whom red-blooded Americans can pull the lever. Gone are Marty’s two pugs in favor of more masculine dogs. Marty’s wife gets a Katie Couric haircut.
Marty could have easily become a Flyover country parody, or worse, but Galifianakis holds his head high every step of the way. If only Marty could resist sinking to Cam’s level of campaign trickery.
By the final reel we’ve witnessed a candidate dropping a baby with one punch, a sex tape turned into a campaign ad and a complete lack of moral behavior on both sides.
Talk about bipartisan outrage.
The sly reality, the film tells us, is that voters want to hear these coarse, dumbed down messages, like repeating words such as “America,” “Jesus” and “freedom” until one’s poll numbers tick up. It’s one reason why “The Campaign” feels condescending when the movie’s gags fall on their face – the storyline feels too smug for its own good.
Still, the Ferrell/Galifianakis combination works like gangbusters, and the R-rated campaign attacks are brutally clever – at first. The comic actors bring two very different styles to their shtick. Ferrell’s ability to weather a political gaffe – like when he leaves a sexually charged voice mail on a stranger’s answering machine – borders on brilliance. And Galifianakis gives Marty an inner strength that belies his undisciplined exterior.
Some political points are scored when Marty unearths Cam’s grade school illustration of rainbows and happiness and spins it into a redistribution of wealth charge. But Ferrell’s attempt at wooing the religious vote by attending a snake charming service reminds us how grating the “Saturday Night Live” alum can be when his material betrays him.
The film’s laughs dry up as the script’s true villains come into focus – the Koch stand-ins.
Once again, a Ferrell film using the closing credits to bludgeon audiences with partisan talking points, much like “The Other Guys” ended with a Wall Street sermonette. Here, the Motch brothers get fricasseed one more time.
“The Campaign’s” final line of dialogue leaves little doubt of the filmmakers’ intentions. The Motch brothers are called “greedy motherfuckers” before the end credits roll. It’s proof the movie’s sense of humor got pushed aside to make way for a message approved by the millionaires who hate it when conservatives dig deep into their pockets come election time.
Follow Christian Toto on Twitter @TotoMovies