When you go into a Will Ferrell comedy, you don’t want to just chuckle. You want to enjoy the Big Laugh, the one that makes you feel like a kid again because what’s happening is so funny that you lose all control. In The Campaign, that moment arrived for me during a U.S. congressional debate. Cam Brady (Ferrell), a smugly moronic right-wing incumbent trying to hold on to a seat from North Carolina, has been challenged by Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a doofus with no experience but with some major players behind him. In the debate, Marty asks Cam to recite the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a way of testing whether Cam is a man of True Conservative Values. Does he know the prayer by heart? Of course he doesn’t. So his campaign manager, Mitch (Jason Sudeikis), signals the words to him from the sidelines by acting them out as if this were a game of charades. As Cam fumbles around, getting about half of the words right and half of them gloriously wrong (“Give us this day…our daily pizza”), the scene escalates and erupts as surely as the funniest moments from Anchorman or Talladega Nights. This time, however, the silliness suggests something more resonant.
Today’s big-screen comedy stars (Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Jack Black) tend to express a certain infantile lunacy and anarchic glee that is, on some level, the spirit of our time. Yet it’s astoundingly rare to see any of them make a film that is truly, scathingly topical — not just a comedy but a bona fide satire of what’s going on now. That’s part of what makes The Campaign such a tasty, hilarious treat. It’s a bombs-away lampoon of the contemporary political process, and damned if the movie isn’t just funny but smart. It’s every inch a Will Ferrell comedy (he plays Cam with a beady-eyed, where’s my teleprompter? myopia that delectably walks the line between dim-witted and insane). But The Campaign is also comparable, in ambition and perception, to comedies like Wag the Dog, Bulworth, and Idiocracy. The film was directed not by Ferrell’s usual collaborator, Adam McKay, but by Jay Roach, the Austin Powers auteur who went on to make the very fine HBO political dramas Recount and Game Change. And it’s all about how politics in America has become a money-drenched, media-mad hall of mirrors — not only corrupt but as prefab as an infomercial. It’s about how the whole thing is now a game of charades.
In The Campaign, the candidates have no ideas, and nothing much going on beneath their carefully crafted images, but their superficiality does serve a purpose — they’re idiots because they’re puppets. Cam, with his red-and-blue-striped ties, Rotary Club haircut, and stump speech consisting of canned slogans (“America, Jesus, freedom!”) that he spews with stiff-armed, market-tested rectitude, speaks not in coherent ideological thoughts but in focus-grouped signifiers. “My father worked with his hands,” he says, the words delivered with bootstrap pride (that is, before he adds “as head stylist for Vidal Sassoon”). He’s a reactionary on autopilot (and a closet horndog), and he thinks he’s going into the election unopposed. But when he gets ensnared by a sex scandal, the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), a pair of conservative billionaires who are thinly veiled riffs on the Koch brothers, decide to back a candidate of their own.
That’s Marty, of course, the most pliable man they can find — a tour guide who wears awesomely ugly cardigan sweaters and speaks in the caressing Southern-wuss manner of Mister Rogers crossed with the Church Lady. He’s a husband and dad, but as emasculated as you could imagine, and Galifianakis gives a performance that’s over-the-top ludicrous and also strangely sympathetic. Marty is given a ruthless campaign manager (Dylan McDermott) who puts him through the ultimate makeover, and the funny thing is how well it takes. Spouting canned “values” rhetoric, he actually becomes a plausible candidate.
In its ramped-up media-farce way, The Campaign leaves no satirical stone unturned. There are terrific parodies of the mud-bath unreality of negative advertising in the Super PAC era, plus great scandalous gags about outsourcing and house servants. But perhaps the best thing about the film is that it doesn’t let those other players in the political process off the hook: the voters. The sly upshot of The Campaign is that American politics may now have achieved a level of fakery that’s ridiculous, but the most ridiculous thing about the fakery is that it works. A-