If political satire was killed, as the musical wit Tom Lehrer claimed, the day Henry Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize, The Campaign ultimately does little to offer opposing evidence, with its spoof of electoral mudslinging fixated on the profitable below-the-belt zone rather than any sustained lampoon of the U.S.A.‘s lamentable governing duopoly. But there are hints that some of its makers yearned for a more scabrous, acidic tone: The film’s incumbent North Carolina congressman (Will Ferrell, closing in on two decades of being an acquired taste) is a cliché-spouting dimwit (“Jesus. America. Freedom”) with the full-time libido and narcissism of John Edwards. He’s also a Democrat, one who girlishly plays lunch-table footsie with a Goldman Sachs exec who offers a $500,000 donation, and ejects an office intern who bleats about NAFTA-induced job losses with “I don’t wanna hear that shit!” This counterintuitive affiliation with Hollywood’s favorite party is a minute detail, but pays some bracing dividends, with Ferrell’s oversized flag pin and grab bag of pander-speak (“Filipino carousel operators are the backbone of America”) a good fit for a House hack who shares entitlement DNA with the comic’s long-running Dubya impersonation. In the national circus, they’re all Bush now.
His opposing buffoon, handpicked by a pair of billionaire kingmakers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) with designs on making Ferrell’s district the home of sweatshop with imported Chinese workers, is Zach Galifianakis as the mincing black-sheep son of a Republican state politico who’s plucked from his hometown tourism office and terrorized by a black-suited campaign enforcer (Dylan McDermott) to ditch his two pugs and rainbow-patterned polo shirts, and butch up his sibilant voice with Magnum P.I. episodes as a model. Galifianakis’s credulous repressed naif, with a devoted wife (Sarah Baker) and pair of pubescent sons who confess to intimacy with zoo animals when Dad plies them for potential scandal fodder, initially reads as a particularly cheap joke on the heels of Jack Black’s similarly effete mortician in Bernie, but the characterization isn’t far afield from real-life Southern GOP pols conducting their careers in glass closets. With the two stars facing off in an escalating war game, The Campaign gives the audience what it came for, as writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell concoct a shame-off featuring baby punching, dog punching, DUI entrapment, cuckolding (“You get my son to call you Daddy, I fuck your wife,” snarls Ferrell), and a hunting “accident.” Nearly all of it registers as desperate mayhem, not comedy. Director Jay Roach may have enjoyed planting whoopee-cushion parallels to recent political phenomena after his cable docudramas Game Change and Recount, but the drollest bits hearken back to his Austin Powers days: Ferrell, challenged at a debate to recite the Lord’s Prayer, cued by campaign manager Jason Sudeikis via charades, or Galifianakis’s simple inability to operate doorknobs.
A dark conclusion, like the old Franken and Davis SNL sketch where slanderous campaign ads culminated with murder, let alone the paranoid black comedy of Bulworth, isn’t on The Campaign‘s agenda, though the filmmakers are so sheepish about dispatching Aykroyd and Lithgow (cast as “the Motch brothers,” get it?) that their ruin is delayed until the end credits. Its lowbrow, labored slapstick is irregularly overcome by the energy of the stars or a burlesque of Tea Party-era tactics (Ferrell’s crayoned grade-school project being seized upon as “a socialist fable”), but soiled by the standard parade of TV pundits clowning less merrily than they do on their employers’ dime, and the waste of Brian Cox as the challenger’s morose father, this lumpy farce can’t compete in absurdity with climate-change deniers, chicken franchises positioned as the fulcrum of gay civil rights, or the day Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize.