As we sat in the theater before the screening for The Campaign, I turned to my entourage (yup– I’m a regular Vinnie Chase) and said “This can go one of two ways. Either this movie will be hysterical, or it will be absolutely terrible. I see no possibility for middle ground. Great or dreadful – these are our options.” I’d like to say after that ominous statement that the lights dimmed and the film began, but in reality we just sat in the theater for another ten minutes while my friends probably contemplated that I was being overdramatic. This was, after all, just a comedy.
Having just been burned by The Watch, however, meant that I was particularly wary going in to The Campaign. I feared that this was going to be another “all the best parts are in the trailer” situation. I like Will Ferrell a lot; I find it hard to look at him and not chuckle in anticipation of what he is going to do. Even when he is in a bad movie – and he’s been in plenty – I usually at least enjoy the scenes that he is in. I didn’t particularly like Starsky and Hutch when it came out (though it has grown on me after repeated viewings on cable), but his scene in the prison always made me laugh. He makes some wonderfully weird choices and you can’t say that he doesn’t commit to a role. When he goes for something, he goes for something. I have no idea what possessed him, for example, to decide to do an entire movie in Spanish when he is not particularly fluent in the language, but it was certainly an interesting choice. Generally, if Ferrell is attached to a project, I’m more than willing to give it a shot.
I am not as enthusiastic about Zach Galifianakis. I like him, but I tend to like him in smaller quantities. My favorite performances are when he is part of an ensemble or is used sparingly. The more prominent his screen time, the less likely I am to enjoy him. The Hangover – yes; Due Date – no. While Ferrell makes some weird choices that are funny, Galifianakis makes some weird choices that are just – weird. Even in interviews, I find him kind of odd. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but something about him just rubs me the wrong way. When he is used effectively, Galifianakis is wildly funny; the difficulty, of course is finding the right balance. And of course, what is the right balance for me might not be the right balance for everyone else.
So pairing Ferrell and Galifianakis was either going to be a comedy dream team or it was going to end badly. Their interviews in promotion of the film didn’t really give me comfort. While some of them were very funny (especially their appearance on The Daily Show with a guest appearance by Jon Hamm), some were not so amusing. I went into the screening with my fingers crossed that the stars would align. There is nothing worse than sitting through a bad comedy.
So I am very relieved to report that The Campaign is very, very funny. Ferrell is his usual ridiculous self and Galifianakis’ role plays to his strengths. I laughed more in the first 15 minutes of The Campaign than I laughed in The Dictator and The Watch combined.
Of course, it helps that not only are the performances very funny, but that The Campaign skewers a world that is near and dear to my heart. I am a political scientist by trade and one of my scholarly areas of expertise is campaigns and elections, especially political communication. So while the movie is funny for everyone, I got an especial kick out of some of the scenes in the movie. Let’s just say that they reinforce my impression of the general electorate and how easily they can be manipulated.
The plot for the film is pretty simple: Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a long term Congressman from North Carolina who is running for re-election unopposed. When Brady commits a political gaffe that makes him vulnerable, two wealthy brothers (obviously modeled on The Koch brothers) decide to field an opposition candidate for Brady that they will be able to control. Enter Galifianakis as Marty Huggins, their unlikely choice for a challenger. Aided by a cut throat campaign manager (the surprisingly hilarious Dylan McDermott), Huggins has to be transformed from mild mannered director of tourism to titan of politics. Hilarity ensues.
This should be obvious, but The Campaign is in no way highbrow or particularly witty. It has plenty of slapstick and crude moments, but they are deliciously comical. I’m sorry, but punching a baby is never not funny (in this context, of course), especially when done in slow motion. Political campaigns are pretty absurd in many ways and this film just takes this to the next level. I was also pleasantly surprised that many of the funny bits from the commercials for the film were slightly tweaked in the actual movie, so even the material that I had already seen was different enough that it wasn’t tiresome.
Ferrell has a track record in political comedy, having portrayed former President George W. Bush on Saturday Night Live and in a one man show on Broadway. I was a little concerned that his Cam Brady would just be a slight derivation of his Bush character, but those fears were unfounded. Cam Brady is a completely new take on a politician by Ferrell and probably shares more DNA with Clinton than Bush. Galifianakis is the heart of the movie and gives Marty Huggins a sweetness that the movie desperately needs. Huggins is definitely on the naïve side of the spectrum at the beginning of the film and it is fun to watch him try and wrangle with a political master.
The Campaign is strengthened by an outstanding supporting cast. As mentioned, McDermott is fantastic as political operative Tim Wattley. For an actor not necessarily known for comedy, he seems like a natural. Jason Sudeikis is a good straight man as Ferrell’s campaign manager and Dan Aykroyd, John Lithgow and Brian Cox all make the most of their limited screen time. Perhaps some of the biggest laughs were for Karen Maruyama in her portrayal of the Huggins family maid. Everyone brings something to the comedy table and The Campaign is the better for it.
Some other quick thoughts:
- As a Seinfeld fan, I found it very odd that they named a prominent character Tim Wattley. Perhaps it was in homage, but I kind of chuckled to myself every time they said his name and couldn’t help but think of Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of the dentist with the same name.
- Of course someone brought a baby to the screening, though he/she was very well behaved. If I hadn’t seen the stroller, I wouldn’t have even known the little one was there. Well played, baby.
- Devoted readers of the blog will know that I was particularly delighted by a surprise cameo in the film, assuming that was actually him (this will make more sense after you see the film).
- I don’t know if they re-did some of the dialogue or if they were just very lucky, but there were some very topical references in the film.
- After the fictional success that Brady has with one of his campaign ads, I’m both hoping and dreading that a real life candidate will employ similar tactics.
- The Koch brothers are really getting a lot of attention – first they feature prominently on The Newsroom and now they inspired characters in this film. I really hope they have a sense of humor – they do not seem like guys you want mad at you. I’m guessing that they don’t, as they are currently engaged in a war of words with Galifianakis.
- Even though the film is about a political campaign, it isn’t really about politics. The movie clearly doesn’t have a point of view – the Republicans and Democrats are equally insane and issues don’t matter.
The Campaign is definitely worth going to see. Politics is a good place to mine for comedy and Ferrell and Galifianakis find plenty of laughs. It’s all very ridiculous, but in the best way possible. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, as did everyone else in my party. Elect to go see The Campaign.
The Campaign opens nationwide on Friday August 10th.