Four years ago, in the months leading to the election of Barack Obama, the film Swing Vote was released, a political satire in which the outcome of a presidential race depended on the vote of just one man, played by Kevin Costner. There was a funny, intelligent, observant film; it wasn’t about who Costner’s character would ultimately vote for so much as what the candidates were willing to do in order to win him over. It’s now 2012, it’s an election year, and yet again, a political satire has been theatrically released in the months before anyone can set foot in a voting booth. It’s called The Campaign, and it stars Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. This time around, the results are less than optimal. As is the case with so many other raunchy comedies, this movie is strained, unfunny, and often times in incredibly poor taste.
Anything relating to politics is an easy target for parody, and I’ll be the first to admit that certain aspects of running for office are too dirty and backhanded to not be portrayed in a humorous light. But as with any lampoon, getting it right depends entirely on who gets their hands on it. The people behind The Campaign have some very wrong ideas about how to elicit laughter from the audience. If you need a specific example, look no further than the scene where Ferrell accidentally punches a baby; to expect anyone to find this funny is to have completely lost touch with reality. In a follow-up to this scene, Ferrell accidentally punches Uggie, the dog from The Artist. It’s bad enough the filmmakers are making light of child abuse. Why make things worse by adding on animal cruelty?
The foundation of the plot involves two corrupt CEOs, brothers Wade and Glen Motch (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), who have illegal dealings with the Chinese and want to staff factories in North Carolina with cheap labor imported directly from China. In order to gain influence in their state’s congressional district, they must first dethrone Democratic congressman Cam Brady (Ferrell), who’s running for his fifth consecutive term. This is only because he went unopposed during the first four races. The Motch Brothers set their sights on a local tour guide named Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), a dimwitted and effeminate family man who sounds an awful lot like Mr. Garrison from South Park. With the help of a ruthless campaign manager named Tim Wattely (Dylan McDermott), who dresses in black and looks like a hitman, they groom Huggins into becoming a congressional candidate for the Republican Party.
Because Brady is such a dirty fighter, Huggins must learn to be just as unfair in his attacks. And so begins the grandstanding and mudslinging, exaggerated to such a degree on both sides that it eventually stops being entertaining and becomes tiresome and repetitive. Part of the problem is that the filmmakers take amusing ideas and overplay them. There are so many instances where jokes are stretched beyond the point at which they can still be considered funny. After a while, they all come off as desperate and afflicted with a lack of originality. There is, for example, a scene early on where Huggins pressures his wife and children to admit to any indiscretions before the campaign can get underway; the list of things they confess is not only long, it’s also only halfway funny to begin with and gets steadily less funny with every passing line. Mostly, it’s just gratuitous and disgusting.
If there is something good to say about this film, it would be the way in which director Jay Roach and screenwriters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell depict candidates answering debate questions. They successfully overstate a politician’s tendency to dance around an issue without actually providing a definitive response; in the film, Brady observes that he doesn’t understand the rhetoric, but he knows all about pacifying voters by mentioning Jesus and freedom. This is a good start. If only someone had thought to not focus so much on crude sight gags and even cruder lines of dialogue. It’s not so much what the filmmakers are saying, but how they’re saying it. It doesn’t take long for the clever observances to devolve into a monotonous stream of four-letter words.
Other subplots work their way into the story. Huggins vies for the support of his disapproving father (Brian Cox), while Brady faces rejection from his highly superficial wife (Katherine LaNasa), who knows he has been sleeping with a twentysomething cheerleader. Meanwhile, the mudslinging continues; Huggins is compared to an Islamic terrorist, Brady’s second-grade illustrated story is labeled as a communist manifesto, and both end up crossing personal boundaries by interfering with members of each other’s families. Is any of this funny? Not especially. It’s downright deplorable when it resorts to lamebrained ideas like baby punching. The Campaign may please diehard fans of Ferrell and Galifianakis, but I can assure you that their praise will have less to do with satirized politics and more to do with watching these men act like clowns.