Jay Roach’s political comedy couldn’t have come at a better time. Just as the U.S. is beginning to suffer from the fatigue that comes with enduring the final months of the heated presidential campaign between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis give us exactly what we need: a good laugh.
The Campaign stars Ferrell as Conservative Senate shoe-in Cam Newton who gets himself in a bit of a campaigning pickle – if you can call a widely publicized sexual slip-up a pickle – and prompts the powers that be (an evil duo courtesy of the always fantastic John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) to bring in a ringer: Marty Huggins (Galifianakis). Huggins is flanked by his two trusty pugs and spends his days giving empty trolley tours of his tiny North Carolina town – a naïve happy existence that flummoxes his former political operator of a father (Brian Cox). But once Marty’s appointed campaign manager gangster Tim (a ruthless and surprisingly hilarious Dylan McDermott) Pretty-Womans the grinning familial misfit into a standard cutthroat political candidate the messy misinformation-driven games begin.
Everything we’ve ever feared or discovered about our shiny politicians during campaign season is magnified for the sake of this 90-minute cathartic joke. Right as Romney and Obama are getting headlines for the underhanded loosely regulated practice that is the campaign commercial Ferrell and Galifianakis’ characters take the seemingly lawless practice to a wonderful hyperbolic place where having a mustache makes you a friend of Sadam Hussein and splicing quotes to blaspheme your opponent is kosher. Oh wait that last part is actually true.
This story from frequent Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay along with Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell plays on the clichés of the campaign trail and dresses them up with baby-punching and butt-licking. Right out of the gate we’re treated to Ferrell cheating on his wife with a squealing harlot in a porta-potty. The writers have no mercy for the political world and coincidentally neither do most of us. And even as the film stretches the limits of our ability to stomach schlocky gross gags it’s not entirely uncalled for. In fact this over-the-top flick is practically an extension of the way many of us view the idea of campaigning in the U.S. – the key is abject cynicism.
Raunchy gags are the name of the game but The Campaign doesn’t shirk the necessary weight of its source material. Sure Ferrell’s requisite nude scene merits a few giggles but it’s the moments that are centered on speeches and strategy that really make the film. They’re rife with spot-on frustrated commentary about the emptiness of political speeches and promises and draped in the hilarious inflections of the films’ funnymen.
But beyond the parts that make us laugh hard enough to eke out a sideways tear The Campaign actually has something that most raunchy Ferrell comedies only purport deliver: a heart-warming gooey center. We can chalk this up to Galifianikis’ Marty who represents the political fantasy we try to believe in every election: the existence of a truly honest well-meaning politician. He’s the guy who runs on the platform that “Washington is a mess” and he actually believes he can clean it up. When Cam is running his mouth about loving America Marty is the one who actually offers up idealistic solutions. To some extent Marty is a character we’ve seen before but he’s this bright spot that keeps The Campaign from becoming a long-form rant.
In addition to Galifianakis’ lovable Marty we find gems in the form of McDermott – whose phantom-like presence throughout the film is always worth a laugh – and newcomer Katherine La Nasa as Rose Cam’s gut-wrenchingly opportunistic Barbie of a wife. Oddly enough a big name like Jason Sudeikis receives low-billing this time around and perhaps it’s because his role is a rather mild one for a man who’s solidified himself as the overgrown frat-boy du jour. Still it’s Galifianakis who carries the film and Farrell’s usual shtick that provides the platform for his character’s unavoidable goodness.
The Campaign is a surprising oddly adorable summer comedy combining the disgusting cringe-worthy visuals we’ve come to expect from a Will Ferrell flick with the brains we hope for any time we see the word “political” tied to a film.
Two of the biggest names in comedy working together on a political comedy? Almost sounds too good to be true, right? Unfortunately, it is and isn’t.
The good (and possibly great) news is that Warner Bros. Pictures has purchased a pitch that will bring together Zach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell in a couldn’t-be-better-timed political comedy set to be released during the 2012 mad-house election cycle. Despite what you may think of their movies (Due Date was funny, but it was no Hangover. The Other Guys was refreshing for Ferrell, but he has made crap like Blades of Glory), they are two of the funniest actors working right now. Ferrell’s flame might have burned out as of late, but Zach’s (give me a break, it's really hard writing Galifianakis over and over, and your pity checks can reach me by mail) stock couldn’t be higher.
What holds me back from declaring this the next great American Comedy is the peripheral players. Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell are writing the script while Jay Roach will serve as one of many producers. These three guys have worked with some of the top comedic talent in the past decade to extremely varying results.
Let’s start with the easy one first. Harwell is a relative newcomer, his only produced credit is second season of Eastbound and Down, on which he served as a lead writer. While the season was spectacular, how much of that credit can go to Harwell remains unclear. And since Eastbound and Down is a Gary Sanchez production (headed by Ferrell and his writing/directing partner Adam McKay who will also produce this new comedy), he could be their new go to writer. It’s really easy to say you’re a great writer when you’re also working with Danny McBride and Jody Hill. So I’ll hold judgment until he’s proven himself (I’m nice like that).
Henchy is a Funny or Die staple (also another Ferrell/McKay joint), having produced and written several of their most notable videos. He also co-wrote The Other Guys, which, as mentioned before was rather good all things considered, but like Harwell he has worked with some mighty big talent, making it difficult to tell how much he contributes. I should clarify that I’m not accusing these guys of coat-tailing the talents of better men, rather, I'm playing devil’s advocate. They could be the funniest guys on the planet, I’m just not sure of how much funny is their own. Not knowing the behind the scenes workings, I’m only going on what I’ve seen.
Roach, again, has worked with some great talent (Ben Stiller, Mike Myers, Steve Carell) and produced some mixed results (Yay to Austin Powers, nay to Dinner For Schmucks). He’s obviously capable of handling the talent of two giants like Ferrell and Galiafinakis (both of whom he has worked with before) so we shall see how this turns out.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and put my neck on the line by saying that this will be a better than expected movie (a truly bold prediction, I know, I’ll be taking my Pulitzer at any time). Even if the script is crap and the directing sucks, Galiafinakis and Ferrell are two of the best improvisers in the industry. The people in front of and behind the camera are not idiots (I hope) and they have the best scenario going into the film. I don’t think they’ll screw it up. Or rather, I hope they don’t.