Electile Dysfunction, by Matt Warren
The Campaign is the type of comedy we don’t see much anymore. For nearly a decade, the Judd Apatow humor model has been ascendant, flooding multiplexes with a steady stream of recognizable characters, relatable plots, raunchy set pieces, and tasteful, critic-friendly dollops of heartfelt humanism. But director Jay Roach’s new political semi-satire feels like a throwback to a more ‘90s-friendly strain of broad, silly, star-powered comedy film. In fact, watching The Campaign in theaters feels somewhat unnatural—like it’s meant to be watched during the day on Comedy Central, split into episodic chunks by a bajallion South Park promos and commercials for SlapChop.
The pitch is about as high-concept as it gets: “Will Farrell and Zach Galifianakis are political candidates running against each other!” That’s all you need to know. Farrell plays incumbent North Carolina congressman Cam Brady as a very minor riff on his famous George W. Bush impersonation, while Galifianakis’s upstart challenger Marty Huggins is heavily derived from his “Seth Galifianakis” alter ego—a fictional, effeminate “twin brother” character the Comedians of Comedy alumn frequently trots out on TV talk shows and web videos. Though Brady is technically the antagonist, Huggins is very nearly as flawed, and easily twice as icky.
Interestingly, Farrell’s character is explicitly a Democrat, with Galifianakis running against him as a Republican. I suspect a lesser film would’ve left the characters’ political affiliation unmentioned for fear of turning off moviegoers of any one specific party. On the other hand, a braver film would’ve drawn a more biting distinction between the two candidates’ goals and beliefs. Think Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth, which satirized—ruthlessly and equitably—both sides of the abortion debate. But despite their party allegiances, Brady and Huggins seem to occupy the exact same ideological space: a vaguely God-friendly, pro-gun Middle America moderate conservatism. You can read this as Roach making incisive commentary about the inherent similarity of mainstream Democrats and Republicans, or you can just read it as another version of copping out.
But as every election cycle inevitably reminds us, politics is boring. The bigger question is, is the movie funny? Mostly. But we’re talking broad, dumb laughs. Nothing too insane or anarchic. No scenes that prompt the viewer to exclaim “I can’t believe they’re doing this!” like the scrotal hotel wrestling of Borat or Team America’s extended puppet-porn montage, to name two successful examples of artful lowbrow political satire from the last ten years. The Campaign is rated R for liberal F bomb usage and some pedestrian raunch, but it doesn’t take full advantage of its adults-only rating.
But still, there’s a lot of good stuff here. There’s a reason Farrell and Galifianakis are movie stars. These are two seriously funny and charismatic human beings, even when doing heinous shit like seducing each other’s wives or going for drunken joyrides in stolen cop cars. Particularly memorable are Farrell’s fumbling attempts to recite the Lord’s Prayer during a political debate, and an ill-fated hunting trip photo op that crosses the line into out-and-out attempted murder. And punching babies? Satisfying in life, and on film. It helps that Roach achieves a brisk pace, making the film’s already slight run time go down easy.
The Campaign may not be as ambitious as its premise has the potential for, but in the low-stakes game of affable laffers, it’s a success. And as comedians, Farrell and Galifianakis do something few real politicians ever actually get around to: their jobs.