1:53 pm Aug. 10, 20121
It’s election season and times are desperate. And not just for the candidates, who are grinding away, gleefully calling out each others’ gaffes, and trying to smile through the waves of nausea that must accompany a diet made up exclusively of small-town-diner lunches and $30,000-a-plate dinners.
Voters are understandably frazzled—unemployment is bad and looks like it’s going to stay that way for a while, ideological tensions are tauter than ever, and so far this is the only memorable campaign song of the cycle.
But political and economic discord has traditionally worked in comedy’s favor. The Great Depression saw the rise of screwball comedy in the ‘30s and ‘40s and the Cold War produced satirical masterpieces like Dr. Strangelove and Being There. There was some talk about the “death of irony” after 9/11, but Bush turned out to be as much a gift to comics and comedy writers as he was a burden to the world at large. Tough times don’t always coincide with waves of great comedies, but the stupidity of politics and politicians at least provides reliable fodder.
But if our current political troubles bring about a new wave of satirical brilliance, the middling comedy The Campaign, which opens today, is not a part of it. When a congressman (who we see but once) refuses to let billionaires Glenn and Wade Motch (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) “insource” one of their Chinese factories (shipping the factory and its workers from China to the United States) to his district, the Motches (get it? like Koch if you pronounced it wrong) find someone else to throw their Super PAC money behind. Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the sweet but strange son of Motch business associate Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox), finds himself at the center of a full-bore political machine, running a race against know-nothing incumbent Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) for a small congressional district in North Carolina. Aided by hardass campaign manager Tim Wattley (a stunt-casted Dylan McDermott), Marty goes from giggly naïf to conniving political pro, while the normally bulletproof Cam falls apart.
The rest of the plot consists mostly of a barely-exaggerated send-up of negative campaign tactics, as Marty becomes more savvy and more savage, and Cam responds in kind. The turn comes when Marty, realizing the Motches have no interest in bringing jobs to the district, gives back the money and runs an honest campaign. The Motches flood Cam with money after he agrees to the insourcing plan, putting him in a position to win but leaving him to wonder whether easy money is all there is to politics. By the end both candidates (who, in an uncommented-on but realistic gesture, are both more or less small-government conservatives) are physically bruised and emotionally scarred, but they seem to have learned something about the value of thinking locally.
Most of the movie's gags will be familiar in form (if not from the preview). Cam takes a swing at Marty and accidentally punches a baby in the face. The still-green Marty tries to trash-talk Cam before a debate, and Cam says some really filthy things. Marty and his family are fat. Will Ferrell is, almost inevitably, naked at some point. Cam takes another swing at Marty and accidentally punches a dog. (Incidentally, The Campaign relies on at least five separate dogs for laughs. There must be some sort of algorithm that will predict how many weak laughs a movie can expect to earn per adorable dog.)
Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) directs ably, and most of the gags “work” in the sense that their mechanics come off and they fulfill whatever comedic potential they ever had to begin with, but most of the time that isn’t much. There are moments when The Campaign does capture the kind of flat surrealism of the underrated Stepbrothers, Ferrell’s funniest movie (Adam McKay, who has written and directed a host of Farrell's films, helped pen this one too). In one of them, Marty airs an attack ad where he coaxes Cam’s son into saying “I love you” to Marty and accepting him as a surrogate father. It’s a weirdly disconcerting scene, far more disturbing than the act of infidelity that comes later in the movie.
The performances themselves are mostly uneven. Ferrell essentially trots out his George W. Bush impersonation with its signature blend of swagger and vacuousness, while Galifianakis (who actually is from North Carolina) relies on a lilting accent and ugly sweaters. McDermott does a fine job channeling sensei John Kreese, but nobody seems to have given Lithgow and Aykroyd anything to do. They sneer their way through their lines but, while the film seems to have riled the actual Kochs a bit, the Motches remain empty rich-guy placeholders. Their lack of personality is part of the point—they've sublimated every part of themselves to the drive for profit—but then why bother casting two brilliant comic actors in these roles? At least, even while phoning one in, Brian Cox can still generate a gravity well of resigned disappointment powerful enough to drag a planet into his forehead crinkles.
And so it’s possible that The Campaign is just not that great a movie. All other flaws aside, its primary disappointment is that it fails to provide the kind of biting critique (or all-out lampoon) that developments like the Citizens United case and the Tea Party seem ripe for. The film seems powerless against the the largeness of the problems it parodies. In this regard, the most telling moment comes under the closing credits. We see a congressional hearing underway with the Motch Brothers facing a row of representatives. But after charges of illegal campaign financing are brought against them, Glenn blurts out that, per Citizens United, everything they did was completely legal. It’s supposed to be a powerful moment, but it’s totally devoid of humor. You can read panic in the unadorned facticity of Lithgow’s outburst, as though the filmmakers were so terrified of being misunderstood that they couldn’t bear to let the political messages of the film (Citizens United bad! Political polarization bad! Koch Brothers so, so bad!) remain subtext.
Similarly, when a political consultant Cam hires screens a potential ad that features Marty dressed up like Osama Bin Laden with explosives wrapped around his waist, it ought to be obvious that this is a send-up of the xenophobic insinuation tactics of the right ("What do we really know about Barack Hussein Obama?"). And yet the filmmakers think we need Cam's campaign manager (a very affable Jason Sudeikis) vocally expressing concerns about the wisdom of these tactics, as though the ad itself, which accuses Marty of being in Al Qaeda and/or the Taliban, weren't enough. Comedy, The Campaign seems to think, risks distorting the message rather than delivering it.
Perhaps it’s stupid to expect a movie like The Campaign to play the part of the destroying angel, but does it have to inject more despair into an already-grim summer? When a comedy targets what are arguably some of the most damaging recent developments in American politics, and then can’t summon the satirical muscle to do anything but point at them while punching itself in the crotch, there is some kind of larger failure at work.
It could be that American political life has assumed such grotesque properties that it’s immune to satire, that it’s messed up enough to escape the logic of any joke you might want to make about it. (The film does get a bit of mileage from mocking the humorlessness and stupidity of the American swing voter, something it would have done well to follow through on.) The overall effect is to remind us of the unbelievable power of people like the Koch Brothers while affirming that there’s little we can do about it. Not even, as Lithgow’s outburst reminds us, to laugh at it.
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