'The Campaign': The Jokes Are Dumb, but So's Politics

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Jay Roach's election comedy tackles the current political zeitgeist with sly, silly aplomb.

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Universal

Back in 2004, Team America: World Police perfectly captured the electoral zeitgeist, with Matt Stone and Trey Parker blasting hypocrites on both sides of the political aisle. (It also gave us a replacement national anthem, at least for the day SEAL Team Six killed bin Laden.) Eight years later, Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis—along with director Jay Roach—accomplish a similar feat with The Campaign, an election-year satire that has a sharper bite than viewers would expect from its mediocre-looking previews and (no pun intended) ad campaign.

Ferrell, in one of his funniest performances since Anchorman, plays Congressman Cam Brady (D-North Carolina), an airheaded composite of George W. Bush and John Edwards. When not vacuously expressing his commitment to "America, Jesus, Freedom," he's cheating on his wife in a portable toilet and tweeting photos of his junk like Anthony Weiner.

The film holds a mirror back at citizens who value baby-kissing and piety over problem-solving.

Brady originally entered politics as a student to help kids injured by dangerous playground equipment, but now he's just another empty Capitol Hill suit, taking money from Goldman Sachs in exchange for access. His re-election is guaranteed until a challenger enters the race: local weirdo Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), an unwitting pawn of the billionaire Motch Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd). Not exactly a subtle reference, but it makes a point.

The faux-Kochs want to replace American workers with inexpensive Chinese labor—not by sending jobs overseas, but by importing sweatshop wage-slaves. (They call it "insourcing," which will save on shipping costs.) In politics, Lithgow says, "When you've got the money, nothing is unpredictable." And they predict winning this one last necessary vote in the House.

Ferrell promises to run a civil, positive campaign, which quickly devolves into an inflammatory propaganda mill too demented for Karl Rove. He compares Galifianakis's mustache to Saddam Hussein's, knocks Galifianakis's pugs for being an insufficiently patriotic choice of canine ("Get some American dogs, you commie!" a Ferrell supporter yells), and seduces Galifianakis's homely wife on video in "the first campaign ad sex tape."

It's over-the-top but surprisingly topical in depicting how the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling allows powerful interests to dominate the media narrative. The film also holds a mirror back at a citizenry that values baby-kissing and ostentatious piety (Galifianakis heaps praise upon "the greatest American who ever lived, Jesus Christ") far more than solutions to actual problems. It's not difficult to imagine many voters preferring Ferrell's fireworks extravaganza and short-skirted cheerleaders over discussions of technocratic budget wonkery.

When Ferrell goes on a hunting trip to prove his rugged masculinity—his aides sneak him a "defrosted buck" for the cameras—it's no more ludicrous than John Kerry's notorious 2004 photo op, or Mitt Romney's "small varmints" pandering. When a massive brawl erupts at a town-hall debate, we're basically watching a live-action Internet comment forum. Cameos from Chris Matthews, Wolf Blitzer, Bill Maher, Joe Scarborough, and Piers Morgan heighten the surreality.

Of course, The Campaign isn't a subversive political satire on the brilliance level of Dr. Strangelove. It's a goofy comedy geared for a mass-market audience—but it manages to entertain while criticizing how "big money is running politics in America." By calling bullshit on the whole system, not just one side, the film should appeal to liberals and conservatives who care about integrity... and who can laugh at a baby getting slow-motion punched in the face (in CGI, of course). With their shrewd, often hilarious critique of a political culture dependent on mindless spectacle, Ferrell and Galifianakis remind us that—when the electorate refuses to pay attention to anything serious—democracy becomes the biggest joke of all.

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Marty Beckerman has written for Esquire, The New York Times, Wired, and others. He is the author of The Heming Way.

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