Monday, August 13, 2012

Movie Review: "The Campaign" by David Pretty

The Campaign arrives at rather opportune time.  Ninety percent of Americans disapprove of the job that Congress is doing.  We're smack-dab in the middle of a federal election which looks to pit a centrist sitting President paralyzed by Republican sour grapes versus an obscenely wealthy corporate shill who's willing to say or do anything in order to win.  Negative campaign ads are flying like spitballs in Grade Eight English class.

Although The Campaign is timely it's neither as clever nor as creatively weird as the reality it's trying to parody.  What could have been a viciously funny, sharp critique of the U.S. political system ends up being a series of increasingly wacky escalating hi-jinx that make you feel like you're watching a sitcom.

Not only does the film's trailer hint at these flaws but interestingly enough, it has a slew of footage which doesn't even appear in the final film.


Will Ferrell plays Camden "Cam" Brady, a shiftless, unethical, barely-conscious philandering lout who's return ticket to Congress gets renewed every year by virtue of running unopposed.  When the rich, opportunistic Motch Brothers (played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) are doubtful that the scandal-ridden Brady can fulfill their goal of establishing a Chinese-style sweatshop in the middle of North Carolina, they decide to assemble their own candidate from scratch.

Their patsy comes in the form of Martin "Marty" Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a woefully unstylish, decidedly effeminate tourism director.  Thinking that he's just been tapped to do some good for his home district, Marty agrees to run against the entrenched incumbent.  

At first, the sweet and naive Marty gets chewed up by Cam in their first few encounters.  To improve his son's odds, wealthy industrialist Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox) retains the ruthless and laconic services of campaign strategist Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott).  Between his fraudulent metamorphosis and the rigors of dirty politics, Marty's wide-eyed innocence begins to fade, putting a strain on his marriage to the equally buttoned-down Mitzi (Sarah Baker).          

As one might expect, the campaign quickly becomes contentious.  At an early "civility luncheon", Cam blindsides Marty with incriminating photos of his "Chinese" pets as well as his work-out routine at Curves.  Marty fires back by challenging Cam's religious faith and waving around a "Communist Manifesto" that his opponent wrote when he was eight years old.  Cam turns around and accuses Marty's facial hair of being an Al-Qaeda sympathizer.    

Which brings me to the main problem with the film.  Although some of the initial gaffes and ridiculous charges are funny and have real-world precedents, the script escalates things to such ludicrous heights that both candidate would have been politically ruined if not thrown in jail.  Trust me when I say this, there's plenty of real-life political fodder which is a helluva lot more original, funny and believable then what we see here.  

But I don't want to take anything away from the exceptional cast.  Although Will Ferrell is essentially doing his Dubya-by-way-of-Clinton routine, he's certainly captured the perfect alchemy of pompous boobery and corn-pone hucksterism.  I especially loved watching him unravel in tandem with his campaign.  Confronted with "opposition" for the first time ever, Cam beings to crack up and at one point launches into a glorious tirade which culminates in him essentially speaking in tongues. 

I've always been a fan of the off-kilter humor of Zach Galifianakis (witness his brilliant turn as 1700's stand-up Nathaniel Buckner in The Comedians of Comedy).  Here he manages to bring a very funny and wildly original role to life.  Despite all of his peccadilloes, Marty Huggins still seems like the real quintessential American to me: horribly conflicted, repressed and mired in self-guilt.  I just wish the script was on the same level as Zach's efforts.  

Almost immediately Marty starts doing the same underhanded and despicable things his rival is doing, which is really out of step with the character established in the first half of the film.  In turn, this makes his eleventh hour confessional come off as incredibly hackneyed.  It comes to a point when I really didn't want to see either of these guys succeed.  I think it would have been a lot funnier and more original to see Cam's ultra-nasty campaign get undone by a "kill 'em with kindness" approach from Marty.     

Special mention has to go to Sarah Baker as Marty's equally oddball wife Mitzi.  I'm not sure how much up of what's up on the screen is performance or how much is just genius casting, but Sarah is note-perfect as a genuine Desperate Housewife.  The writers give her plenty of odd quirks (such as an owl fetish and an unhealthy interest in Drew Carey) but this really doesn't pass for character development.  Like her husband, Mitzi also does some pretty baffling things, presumably because the script demands it of her.

Dylan McDermott is hilariously intense and surprisingly deep as Marty's "go for the jugular" campaign manager Tim.  With his clenched deliveries and bouts of intoxication, you get the impression that Tim's self-hatred is palpable.  His ninja-like ability to spring up from out of nowhere results in some amusing visual gags, my favorite being when Mitzi grows frustrated by her husband's constant acquiescence and yells: "When did he become a part of this family!?!"  The resulting deep background focus revealing Tim sitting in their staring intently at them is oddly hilarious.

Also worth mentioning is Karen Maruyama as Mrs. Yao, who's been tasked by her boss Raymond Huggins to adopt a rather, shall we say, traditional approach to her job.  She manages to steal every scene she's in with her over the top line readings and outrageous take on Prissy from Gone With The Wind.  Equally on point is Katherine LaNasa as Rose Brady, Cam's emasculating trophy wife of convenience.      

The always-great Jason Sudeikis brings the funny as Cam's long-suffering campaign manger Mitch.  He's the perfect straight man for Will's dull machinations and burgeoning lunacy.  I loved his reaction to being CC'ed on an Cam's Anthony Wiener-inspired email and doing his damnedest to play "Lord's Prayer charades" with his dull-witted charge
A slew of formidable minor players round out the cast, but their roles are criminally shallow.  Brian Cox as Marty's dad Raymond is a crusty, miserable sonovabitch who has nothing but utter contempt for his son.  Brian's great, but his character has absolutely no other dimension and frankly it's something that we've seen a million times before.

Both John Lithgow and Dan Akroyd are squandered while going through the motions as cartoonish caricatures of the legitimately evil Koch Brothers.  Their plan is so nakedly villainous that audiences might be tempted to think that corporate crime is nothing but a script contrivance.  In actuality, all the writers really needed to do was take a look at any random page in a newspaper to give this fanciful material a bit of weight.

Jay Roach tries to import the same broad, over-the-top, Austin Powers approach here but it ends up being counter-intuitive.  I really wish screen writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell had shown a bit more restraint, since the wackiness really works against the very real message that the U.S. government is actually under the thrall of criminally negligent corporations.

Although the movie has its heart in the right place and serves up its share of cheap laughs, until The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Fox News cease to exist, the exaggerated foolishness depicted in The Campaign will always pale in comparison.

     Tilt: down.   



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