What must have seemed like a no-brainer on paper, with a cast and crew well-versed in the art of cinematic humour (Ferrell’s frequent collaborator and creative partner Adam McKay is one of the producers here, too), struggles to translate to comedy gold on screen, mainly down to a indecisive approach to the material and two performers reluctant to stray outside of their comfort zone.
Democratic Congressman and local golden boy Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is well on the way to winning his seat in North Carolina’s 14th District for a fifth unopposed term. Unfortunately, the god-loving family man has a crippling proclivity for the ladies, and he mistakenly leaves a sexually-explicit voice message for the wrong target. This mushrooms into a major scandal for the brash politician, severely impacting his standing in the opinion polls.
Seeing a chance to oust the congressman, which will offer them the opportunity to implement their nefarious business plan, two filthy-rich sibling CEO’s (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd – wasted) rope the town’s local tourism director Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) into fronting a rival Republican campaign. Huggins, a soft-spoken ineffectual southern boy, reluctantly agrees and is swiftly given a makeover (orchestrated with military precision by Dylan McDermott’s hilariously efficient manager) and so begins a series of smear campaigns and back-stabbing which would cause even Romney’s advisors to shake their heads in dismay.
For the last few years, The Campaign’s director Jay Roach has been skipping between broad comedy and work on a couple of well-received political dramas for HBO. This film feels like something of a mash-up of those two worlds, and therein lies the problem. Roach has fun lampooning the political hyperbole during those grandiose US campaign rallies, and he handles the satirical aspects well, but he frequently make concessions for that audience who flocked to his Austin Powers series. As a result, the overly-farcical elements threaten to undermine the smarter (and no less humorous) moments in the film.
The two leads are also happy to acquiescence to that formula, and Ferrell channels the same arrogant, solipsistic persona which he’s build his career upon. While he has some fun moments with it, there’s a staleness and predictability creeping in now. If Ferrell is somewhat coasting, Galifianakis’ character feels like a slight variation on his campy role in Due Date, and little else. A more appealing model may be have been to make the duo switch roles and play against type, forcing them to up their game, instead of relying on their usual comedic mannerisms to see them through.
Into the mix goes a number of real-life media commentators to give it some topical relevant (the inclusion of Piers Morgan is an instant half-star deduction, however) but this is a well-worn device which has been used numerous times before, and to greater effect.
On the plus side, there are still some genuinely funny moments peppered throughout, and it’s refreshing to see a film which doesn’t take the usual and predictable liberal Hollywood viewpoint. Both sides receive more than an equal pasting and are persistently portrayed as acutely inept and delusional. It’s just a shame the rest of the film can’t muster a similarly thoughtful approach to the humour, instead of falling back on the puerile and obvious in an attempt to gain votes.