Jay Roach directed Austin Powers, and then he directed Recount, and knowing that offers a pretty solid start to understanding what works about The Campaign. Here is a film that manages to play it both broad and sharp, with lovable buffoonery by two comedy greats masking a whip-quick satire of modern politics.
Will Ferrell plays incumbent Congressman Cam Brady (D - NC), running unopposed for years before his most recent extra-marital scandal has got the powers that be looking for a new guy to back. In this case, those powers that be are the Koch - excuse me - Motch Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), who exploit campaign finance loopholes to throw untold amounts of money at their newest puppet. That puppet? A squirrelly little Tea Partier named Marty Huggins, played by Zach Galifianakis. Brady and Huggins don't know much about each other except that they both love small-batch bourbon and Jesus Christ, "the greatest American who ever lived" - but JC notwithstanding, these candidates are now bitter foes.
Galifianakis and Ferrell each do what they do best here. Ferrell plays a strong-haired, oblivious blunderbuss who seems like a smooth talker until you actually listen to what he's saying and realize it doesn't make any sense. Galifianakis delivers a weird, prissy manchild performance that's just slightly right of all of the other weird, prissy manchild performances he's given in the past. Lithgow and Akyroyd are game enough, as is Brian Cox as Marty's good ol' boy daddy.
But much like in a real political campaign, the true strength comes from behind the scenes: the candidates' wives and campaign managers. Katherine LaNasa is hilarious as Rose Brady, a perky little teamplayer who looks the other way when her husband sleeps around but gives him hell when he falls behind in the polls. Sarah Baker is great as Marty's wife Mitzi, sweet and demure but with some surprising weirdness of her own. And Jason Sudeikis and Dylan McDermott are both terrific as the campaign managers, Sudeikis offering a bit more earnest integrity to his usual straight man routine and McDermott playing an intense Machiavellian instrument of the Motch brothers to perfect pitch.
The film opens with the quote: "War has rules, mud wrestling has rules, politics... politics has no rules," from 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot - a quote that is real, I'll have you know. Roach and screenwriters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell do a beautiful job of exposing the sort of fictional absurdity that feels it has no place in reality... until you realize it is reality. While the issues that are superficially at stake in the Brady/Huggins campaign aren't particularly incisive or current, the real issue is, as always, money. The Motch brothers manipulate events with their endless funds, turning not only the candidates but the voters into puppets with a few well-practiced nudges as they assure each other, "When you've got the money, nothing is unpredictable."
But lest you think The Campaign is all hard-boiled satire and painful truths, be assured that the film offers slow-motion baby punches, a makeover montage and plenty of pratfalls, goofy accents and off-color jokes. The movie is a bit like an episode of Saturday Night Live in that some of the bits are guffaw-inducing hilarious, and some are one-note jokes that are played for several notes too long.
But the movie is funny, very funny, and smart as hell. Unfortunately, it gets a little mushy at the end as it begins to promote a bipartisan message that I support in real life but could do without its weighing down my comedies. But for all its silliness, The Campaign fixes what's broken in American politics with easy laughs and sharp truths.