Friday, August 10, 2012

The Campaign

Review by Pamela Zoslov

Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialist brothers known for their funding of Tea Party and other right-wing causes, are livid about THE CAMPAIGN, the freewheeling new comedy starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. The political comedy, directed by Jay Roach (MEET THE FOCKERS, LITTLE FOCKERS, et al.), features a pair of billionaire brothers named Motch, who back a clueless idiot (played by Galifianakis) to run against a scandal-plagued incumbent Congressman (Ferrell). After Galifianakis called the Kochs “creepy” in an interview, a spokesman for the brothers sniffed, “...[I]t’s laughable to take political guidance or moral instruction from a guy who makes obscene gestures with a monkey on a bus in Bangkok,” evidently confusing Galifianakis with the character he played in HANGOVER 2.

Infuriating the Kochs is but one perquisite of THE CAMPAIGN, a cheerfully vulgar portrait of American political corruption. The gags fly fast and furious, so much so that it's hard sometimes to keep up with the escalating absurdity. The range of the movie's humor – from the unspeakably obscene to the nicely aimed satiric stiletto, is impressive. If one joke misses, as many inevitably do, there's another, funnier one right behind it. The screenplay is by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell, who manage to balance the requirements of ridiculous comedy and fact-based political satire. Now that we are in the “silly season” of the presidential campaign, with the candidates engaging in increasingly ridiculous, name-calling attacks ("Romneyhood," "Obamaloney"), the timing of the movie's release could not be better.

Cam Brady, the slick, lazy North Carolina congressman running unopposed for his fourth term, is an amalgam of Bill Clinton and North Carolinian John Edwards, with a little Anthony Wiener thrown in. He's an inveterate philanderer whose campaign shtick, like Edwards' “son of a millworker,” refers to his father, who “worked with his hands” – as head stylist for Vidal Sassoon. Though its fixation on body-part humor can be distracting, the film effectively lampoons the emptiness of campaign rhetoric.

Running for office is usually an easy matter for the charismatic Cam, who typically has only to utter empty slogans about "America, Jesus and Freedom."  But a scandal resulting from a misdialed filthy answering-machine message to his nubile mistress – it falls on the shocked ears of a pious constituent family  – makes him vulnerable to a challenge. Cam is amusingly amoral, continually blaming others for his bad acts (“Why do they even still have an answering machine?”).

Sensing an opportunity to bring their Chinese slave-wage toy factory to North Carolina (something they call “insourcing”), the Motch brothers enlist the town's eccentric, mild-mannered tour guide Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) to enter the race. The conception of the Motch brothers, played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, is clearly derived from the manipulative millionaire siblings in TRADING PLACES. Galifianakis' character, a slightly effeminate nebbish with an uneven mustache, two pug dogs and a plump wife who pleasures herself to Drew Carey on The Price Is Right, resembles, in looks and honeyed Magnolia accent, Jack Black's charismatic killer in BERNIE.

Marty, who still carries a grade-school reputation for soiling his pants, is a disaster on the stump, and no match for the ruthless Cam, who humiliates him at their first campaign event. Marty tells a pointless non-story about his dogs, and Cam destroys him with an embarrassing slide show of his life. The Motches send in the sinister Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) as a campaign manager tasked with making Marty into a winning candidate. The first order of business is to redesign the Huggins' tacky house into a burnished, country-club model of Republican rectitude — an oil painting of an eagle, leather couches and a horsey lamp — and replacing the hapless pugs (“too Chinese” ) with a Lab and a Golden Retriever.

The remainder of the campaign consists of an escalating series of attacks and counter-attacks ad absurdum. Cam punches a baby (“Baby-Punch-Gate,” the news networks dub the scandal). Cam releases an ad painting Marty as a terrorist. (“You know who else had a mustache? Saddam Hussein.”) Huggins has Cam arrested for drunk driving. Cam tries to turn his negatives into a positive with a TV ad featuring sexy pictures of his mistress (“Cam Brady is a Real American Man”). On and on it goes, with lewd, scattershot gags to keep everything light and breezy. The narrative isn't fully coherent, but one has the sense it isn't supposed to be.

Lurking behind the jokes about balls and boobs and farts is some stinging commentary about political corruption. A scene in which Cam and his political operative wife (Catherine LaNasa) lunch with men from Goldman Sachs, all laughing merrily as they agree to play-for-pay, is the stuff of the finest political satire. Unlike other Jay Roach-directed comedies, this one has something to say. Wrapping a meaningful political message in a rude, scatological Hollywood comedy is, in its own strange way, a masterly achievement. 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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