“War has rules, mud wrestling has rules…
Politics has no rules.”
–Ross Perot, Presidential candidate 1988
It was not coincidental that Warner Bros. released their political satire “The Campaign” during the 2012 Presidential season, nor did it hurt box-office receipts that the real-life contest was among the most contentious in modern history. Still, the movie misses much on the satiric front in favor of outright raunchy humor, silliness, and corniness. It’s kind of a missed opportunity, really, even though there are some pretty funny parts in it that might make it worthwhile.
Mainly, “The Campaign” gives stars Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis a chance to demonstrate their comedy chops. If you’ve liked their past work, you’ll like the movie. If you’re not already a fan, it’s unlikely the movie will persuade you otherwise. Both men do what they’ve always done.
“The Campaign,” directed by Jay Roach (“Austin Powers,” “Meet the Parents,” “Dinner for Schmucks,” “Game Change”), makes a good initial stab at poking fun at our current political system and its many abuses. It just gets lost along the way, allowing the characters to wallow in a series of unsubtle vulgarities, profanities, and sexual escapades that detract from the movie’s overall premise.
Will Ferrell has the lead role of Cam Brady, a lazy, dim-witted, hard-drinking, womanizing, incumbent North Carolina congressman who is up for reelection. How shallow is the congressman? At campaign rallies he shouts out “America, Jesus, freedom!” His own campaign manager (Jason Sudeikis) asks him if he knows what that means. “Shit, I don’t know,” answers Brady, “but the people sure love it when I say it.” Brady is full of empty-headed phrases and meaningless but high-sounding rhetoric. He’ll say anything to win a vote, even when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
In a hypocritical moment, however, Brady makes an embarrassing mistake, calling a wrong number to a devout religious family, thinking he’s talking to one of his mistresses and saying a whole lot of lewd and suggestive things into an answering machine, which the press a hold of. Shades here of the Anthony Weiner scandal. Brady’s stupidity is so flagrant, it puts his reelection into jeopardy.
Enter the Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), billionaire “job creators” and “candidate creators,” who believe they may be on the verge of losing a politician they’ve always had in their pocket. The Motches decide to run a different candidate to oppose Brady, one they can pour money into and ensure they still have someone on their side in Congress. They choose an oddball, naive, mild-mannered little fellow named Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) to run against Brady. Huggins is a local tour guide who has never held public office. What’s more, he’s as dumb as Brady. Which is why the Motch boys chose him as their man; they figure they can easily manipulate him.
Clearly, the movie wants to spoof people and things like brainless politicians, of which the country abounds; the real-life Koch brothers, who actually do pour hundreds of millions of dollars into political campaigns; the Citizen’s United ruling, which allows Political Action Committees to accept unlimited contributions from outside corporate sources; dirty advertising campaigns, in this movie implied as downright pornographic; and election manipulation via rigged voting machines, and the like. All well and good, if only the movie had stuck to these ideas and lampooned them further. Instead, the script veers off into typical Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis vulgarities, the screenwriters content to show what bumpkins both candidates are and how unscrupulous they can be, the movie becoming ever sillier and cornier as it goes along.
Also in the cast are Dylan McDermott as Marty’s shady, tough-guy campaign manager; Sarah Baker as Marty’s sweetheart wife; Katherine LaNasa as Cam’s gold-digging wife; Brian Cox as Marty’s exasperated father; and, stealing the show, Karen Maruyama as Marty’s father’s housekeeper. Then, to add realism to a movie that could have greatly benefited from more of the same, a slew of guest appearances by real-life political folks: Chris Matthews, Wolf Blitzer, Bill Maher, Ed Schultz, Lawrence O’Donnell, Dennis Miller, Piers Morgan, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, Willie Geist, and a two-second spot by John Goodman.
OK, so let me put it another way: If you saw the trailer, as I did several times since I go to the movies every week, you saw the movie. The only thing the trailer left out was the smut. Nevertheless, vulgarity, absurdity, and banality aside, there are some unquestionably big laughs along the way that might just make the movie rewarding for a lot of viewers: Brady punching out a baby; Brady’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer; the three debates the candidates have–they’re a riot. Are the movie’s few big jokes enough? Only you can decide.
The political, religious, and cultural jabs in “The Campaign” are generally too broad to be very effective. Most of the gags are not all that biting or witty, just gross. So if it’s sophistication you’re looking for, forget it. This one’s strictly for low laughs, at which it succeeds nicely.
Warner engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec to transfer the movie to Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio, 1.85:1. The digitally shot picture offers the kind of glossy, ultraclean screen colors so favored by viewers who do a lot of television watching. Hues are bright, objects look reasonably well defined, grain is nonexistent, and everything is just a little flat and unrealistic.
Thanks to lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, the sound is as clear as the picture, with an exemplary midrange. There’s not much in the way of frequency extremes, though, except in the pounding bass of an occasional rock song; and there’s not much surround activity except in terms of a faint ambient musical bloom.
One of the biggest “extras” on the Blu-ray disc is getting your choice of either the movie’s theatrical edition (85 minutes) or its extended cut (96 minutes). Next, you’ll find a short feature called “Line-O-Rama,” which is actually a four-minute series of deleted scenes. After that there are nine more deleted and extended scenes, totaling about fifteen minutes, followed by a three-minute gag reel.
The extras on the Blu-ray disc conclude with nine scene selections; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages on the theatrical edition and English only on the extended cut; French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Then, because this is a Combo Pack, you also get the movie in high definition on a Blu-ray disc, the movie in standard definition on a DVD, and a downloadable or streaming edition of the movie via UltraViolet (the offer expiring October 30, 2014). The BD and DVD come housed in a flimsy double Eco-case, further enclosed by a light-cardboard slipcover.
“The Campaign” is a curious movie, part genuine political satire and part potty humor, profanity, and sex. It’s an uneasy combination that scores a few big laughs at the expense of missing the kind of potshots a television series like “The Newsroom” finds so easily. If you simply like the goofy antics of Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, you’ll probably like “The Campaign.” Just don’t be disappointed if you’re expecting a scathing send-up of the political scene, and you don’t find it here.
“How’s the hair?”