The funniest scene in the political spoof The Campaign -- and there are plenty -- has nothing to do with politics even though it takes place at a debate. The Democratic candidate played by Will Ferrell is clueless, womanizing Cam Brady, desperate to save his Congressional seat, not to mention his cheating ass. Zach Galifianakis is the Republican challenger, Marty Huggins, an innocent nitwit controlled by a super-rich Super-Pac. When Huggins demands that his Godless opponent recite the Lord’s Prayer, Brady gets some down-to-earth help.
Just off-stage his campaign manager, Jason Sudeikis in his best SNL mode, acts out the prayer as if he were playing charades. What does that whirling gesture above his head mean? Brady guesses helicopter. There is a whiff of something serious in the way religion is invoked as a necessary evil in politics, but when clever meets silly in this movie, silly always wins. And why not?
Cartoonish exaggeration worked for director Jay Roach in Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers, which The Campaign resembles much more than it does his cutting political films, Recount and Game Change.
Roach and the actors carry off this fun-house mirror version of our real-life political nightmare so expertly -- in swift, perfectly-timed comedy -- that many scenes you already know can still make you laugh. If you’ve caught any of the media blitz for the film you’ve seen the episode in which Ferrell’s character swings at Galifianakis’ and accidentally slugs a baby, but it’s still funny to watch the characters’ horrified reactions, smartly played in slow motion while we hear “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” (I probably should have stayed to see if the credits included a “No babies were harmed in the making of this film” disclaimer, but I assume all infants were unscathed.)
Ferrell’s character, like the Nascar-driving Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, is an almost-believable guy gone haywire. He has John Edwards’ hair but an even slipperier grip on reality. Brady leaves a sexy phone message for his mistress - his politically ambitious wife doesn’t care – only to hit a wrong number. When the God-fearing family who get the message release it to the public, Brady thinks this isn’t a big political problem. Yes, even slower to get it than Edwards.
Dylan McDermott is convincingly lethal as a political strategist sent to beat Huggins into shape, but the film’s best, most underused characters are the movie’s SuperPac-running, Congressional-seat buying counterparts to the Koch Brothers: John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd as the Motch Brothers. (Pronounced motch; a tiny joke because not many characters in this film would know Koch is not pronounced kotch. You think they’re sitting around watching Rachel Maddow?)
No one expects realism from this kind of comedy, but still... the Motches must have had better options for their patsy than simpering Huggins, and Galifianakis must have had more options than recycling his lispy character of Seth (supposedly Zach’s twin brother). Along with appearances on the web series Between Two Ferns, Seth has already shaped Galifianakis’ character in Due Date. Galifianakis’ thoroughly nonsensical character is the film’s weak counterpart to Ferrell’s slightly larger-than-life caricature.
Of course it helps that Brady, slick politician that he is, gets better lines. “America. Jesus. Freedom,” he says to a campaign crowd. Asked what that means, he answers, “Hell, I don’t know,” but he is very clear about the fact that people like it when he says it.
That observation seems uncomfortably true, pointing toward some rock-bottom realism even though The Campaign is not meant to be pointedly political satire. And really, with all the absurdities that stand for campaigning right now, would we really be surprised by some accidental baby-punching?