The Campaign (2012)
Directed by: Jay Roach
Premise: Set in North Carolina, an established congressman (Will Ferrell) fights for reelection against a naïve challenger (Zach Galifianakis) who has the financial backing of a pair of fraternal industrialists (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow).
What Works: The Campaign was directed by Jay Roach and this film is very much a fusion of his interests. Roach has directed silly and raunchy comedies like Austin Powers and Meet the Parents but he has also directed political dramas like Recount and Game Change. The Campaign is a farce, playing very much like a live action political cartoon, and in its best moments the film combines the absurdity of Roach’s comedies with the weight and insight of his political dramas. Those who follow current events will recognize a lot of contemporary themes and for about the first third of the picture the filmmakers manage to keep themselves tethered enough to reality that the satirical elements have some credibility. That credibility allows the filmmakers to have laughs while confronting the main characters with serious dramatic challenges. This is done primarily through the character played by Zach Galifianakis. His performance in The Campaign is likely to be overlooked by the Hollywood awards circuit (just as his performance in The Hangover was similarly snubbed) but the actor has an impressive ability to create fully realized characters. Galifianakis is very good at playing dumb characters that are nevertheless lovable and hemanages to conjure a fair amount of pathos while keeping himself amusing.
What Doesn’t: The Campaign begins well and has some poignant political commentary but it is beset by problems that cheapen the movie and steer it away from intelligent satire and toward the kind of raunchy humor that has become the fallback for the comedy genre. The problems of The Campaign are easily summed up in two words: Will Ferrell. The actor is capable of doing very good work as evidenced by Everything Must Go and Stranger Than Fiction but in The Campaign Ferrell is just going through the motions, recycling the George W. Bush act he did successfully on Saturday Night Live and in his one man show You’re Welcome, America: A Final Night with George W. Bush. Ferrell’s laziness is contagious and the filmmakers lose the discipline with which they begin the film. As they give themselves over to the farcical elements of the story, the filmmakers of The Campaign are sabotaged by their own absurdity. They intend to parody just how ludicrous contemporary politics have become but the ridiculousness peaks too soon and the film repeats the same kind of scenarios over and over again. The Campaign really loses its way in the ending. Satires are by their nature cynical and the success of a satire is measured not so much by laughs but more in the way in which the satirist accurately characterizes the times and exaggerates them to make a point. The filmmakers do have a point to make here but they do not have the courage of their convictions and tag on a disingenuously happy ending instead of bringing the film to an absurdly appropriate conclusion. This betrays the tone of the movie and what might have been an eviscerating satire is at best a passing jab.
Bottom Line: The filmmakers of The Campaign aspire to films like Election or Being There but fall well short of their goal. While this movie is funny and may satisfy fans of Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis it is less satisfying as a political comedy.
Episode: #401 (August 19, 2012)