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Movie Curiosities: The Campaign

Blogs, Movie CuriositieswilliambComment

I think it's fair to say that we live in a very cynical and jaded time. I also think it's fair to say that dissatisfaction with our government is a key reason why. Not that disgust with the American government is anything new, of course, but it seems to be absolutely everywhere in the information age. Finding evidence of corruption has never been easier, and that evidence can be transmitted to all the world in the blink of an eye. Even false claims without any basis in fact can gain traction with appalling ease. In an age when information travels so quickly, politicians and journalists have to address us like we've all got ADHD, lest they get left behind. Of course, this begets an equal and opposite reaction. With the advent of TV, YouTube, and various internet memes, political commentary is almost as ubiquitous as political talking points. Everyone has a voice in this day and age, either to express their own disgust with one or both political parties, or to help spread the jokes and disparaging remarks of others.

We've reached a point of oversaturation, which naturally leads to fatigue, which eventually leads to being extremely jaded. We've spent the past few years immersed in political fuck-ups, political spin, and political mockeries, to say nothing of all the illogical diatribes spewed by fanatical nutjobs of both parties.

The point is this: Any filmmakers (or artists of any medium, for that matter) who try to tackle the subject in this socio-political climate have their work cut out for them. Take last year's The Ides of March, for example. That film was very well-crafted with a great deal of talent behind it, yet the movie still failed hard. Why? Because the movie tried to pass itself off as some biting commentary on modern politics, yet it ultimately didn't say anything that we hadn't already heard a million times over. And that film was relatively non-partisan -- if it specifically went after a particular party or government figure, every studio exec in Hollywood would have treated that screenplay like it was nuclear waste.

Still, March was an Oscar-bait drama. Compare that to The Campaign, which takes a more comedic approach. Again, this might sound like a rather tired method: What jokes could Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis make that haven't already been done by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert? Surprisingly, quite a few.

Our stage is set in Hammond, a city in the 14th district of North Carolina. The district is represented by Congressman Cam Brady (Ferrell), who is running for his fifth unopposed term in office. It's made clear -- literally in the very first lines of the film -- that Cam got to where he is by way of totally empty rhetoric. He's not putting a single iota of thought or effort into his speeches, though when you're running unopposed, why bother?

Anyway, things are going great for Cam Brady until he accidentally dials the wrong number while calling his mistress. One particularly graphic voice mail later, Brady is caught in a scandal. Not that it lasts very long, because -- again -- he's running unopposed.

Cut to Washington, D.C. Here we meet the Motch Brothers (played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), a couple of corrupt billionaires who seek to build a Chinese production plant somewhere in America. This way, they get all the lax environmental regulations and non-existent wages of China, but without the shipping costs. They call it "insourcing." All they need to get the plan going is a lawmaker stupid and/or corrupt enough to get the necessary laws and real estate. So, now that Brady might finally be starting to falter, the Motches figure that they can field a candidate to take his place.

The Motches find Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), the son of a former political giant who used to work with them (Raymond Huggins, played by Brian Cox). Of course, Marty isn't running for the Motch Brothers. In fact, Marty is a dimwitted family black sheep with no previous ambitions in government. Instead, Marty runs for office because he loves the city of Hammond and he wants the chance to do something good for it.

So Marty and Cam run against each other. Let the games begin.

At this point, let's stop and look at what we have here. On one side is Cam Brady, a man whose vocabulary consists entirely of loaded words. He says whatever will make his audience happy, despite the fact that there's no shred of sincerity in his words. Absolutely everything about him is superficial and fake. That's not to say he's malicious or corrupt, just that he's an empty shell of a man.

Compare that to Marty Huggins, who always speaks his puny mind. His love of Hammond is very sincere, and he makes a point of talking honestly, to contrast against all the rampant D.C. lies. The problem is that Marty doesn't know how to talk as one human being to another. He has no social skills, and he talks without realizing what a weirdo he sounds like.

One candidate is an idiot who speaks pretty and insubstantial words, hiding the fact that he has no clue what they mean. The other candidate is an oddball whose inane and disgusting ramblings come straight from his well-intentioned heart. I'd ask who you might vote for in such a situation, but there's really no point: No matter who wins this election, everyone loses.

At this point, you may be wondering which of them is the Democrat and which of them is the Republican. I know the answer, but I'm not going to tell you, because it doesn't matter. Their party affiliations are not remotely relevant. It doesn't matter how the candidates differ on important issues because they go very far out of their way to avoid talking or even thinking about important issues. I'm not even 100 percent sure that these candidates have platforms to run on. No joke, there's a scene in which Cam throws out one of his employees for daring to propose some ideas for fixing the country (It's a lot funnier in context).

The two candidates are completely interchangeable in the grand scheme of things, and the Motch Brothers prove that beyond any doubt. See, the Motches only care about getting results. As such, when Huggins starts lagging in the polls, they switch sides without batting an eye. If the reverse should happen, they'll reverse their support just as easily. The matter of who's Democrat and who's Republican doesn't concern them in the slightest. To them, to Cam, and to Marty, money is money.

Part of what makes the Motches work so well is the fact that they aren't exactly played as mustache-twirling villains. Their plan is cartoonishly evil, sure, but their demeanor is disturbingly matter-of-fact. As far as they're concerned, this is just business as usual. They don't burst out into maniacal laughter, they simply talk in mundane terms. The Motches are alarmingly calm about being corrupt on such a massive scale, which simultaneously makes them more villainous and more funny. It also makes the satire much more biting, like the film is throwing its hands up and saying "This is just how it is, folks."

Anyway, the Motch Brothers' assistance is personified by Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), who introduces himself abruptly as Marty's campaign manager. Wattley wastes no time invading Marty's home, reshaping even the most minute details of the candidate's life according to what tracks well with the voters.

Wattley is there to represent the idea of turning a human being into a soulless partisan puppet for the sake of winning elections. He also represents the idea that in the era of 24-hour news networks, political candidates must always -- always -- act as if they're on camera. It's a tired idea known to all of us, but McDermott and the filmmakers find a way to spice things up on occasion. Every so often, we'll just see Wattley sitting around the house and commenting about how there's no food in the fridge or something like that. He acts like he's part of the family, which is disturbing on so many levels. It's an unsettling reminder of how deeply the character has ingrained himself into Marty's life, and it gives the character a few funny moments.

While Marty slowly transforms from a well-meaning idiot to a political animal, Cam spirals further and further into insanity as he runs an actual campaign for the first time in a decade. Both of these characters are completely outside their comfort zones, and they only get further out as the movie progresses. To that end, they both need characters who can remind them of who they used to be, for the sake of character development. Moreover, having a "straight man" or two to call the characters out on their shenanigans does a lot to help the satire as well.

For Cam, we have Mitch (Jason Sudeikis), Cam's campaign manager. The two of them are longtime friends, so Mitch (unlike Wattley with his candidate) honestly has Cam's best interests at heart. What's more, he's an honest-to-God human being who realizes that the arms race of negative campaiging is getting way out of hand and might actually hurt Cam's chances at the polls. To be fair, however, Mitch has never actually needed to run a campaign for Cam, so it's hard to tell just how good he is.

Mitch is probably the closest thing to a normal, intelligent human being in this picture, and Sudeikis does a fine job with the role. His performance contrasts wonderfully off of Ferrell, and Sudeikis works well as an impartial voice of reason. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Mitzi.

Marty's wife (Mitzi Huggins, played by Sarah Baker) serves as his voice of reason for the picture. She's there to remind him that Wattley is not part of their family, that Marty is a very different man than he was before the campaign, that they still have a life after the election, and so on. It isn't remotely funny or entertaining to watch. Even worse, there's a point where Mitzi gets involved with the campaign in a particularly shocking way. I ask you, how can a character be a detached voice of reason when they play a direct part in the craziness?

To be fair, Mitzi's involvement came about as a direct result of Cam's son [Cam Jr., played by Randall D. Cunningham] getting involved. How that came about, I have no fucking clue.

At this point, you may be wondering about Cam's wife. Well, Rose Brady (played by Katherine LaNasa) is sort of a reverse trophy wife. She's only interested in being Cam's husband so long as he can keep climbing the political ladder and bring her along for the ride. This puts a very intriguing spin on the mistress scandal I mentioned earlier: If you're cheating on a wife who doesn't love you, where's the harm? Additionally, this marriage reinforces the point that absolutely everything about Cam's life is a lie.

It's a shame that the film develops these candidates as characters, because the attempts to flesh them out are easily the movie's weakest aspect. They take away from the campaign itself, which is easily the best reason to see this movie. Watching Cam and Marty try to one-up each other in terms of negative campaigning, rumor-mongering, and exaggerated spin -- all while resolutely avoiding any actual talk about job creation or finance reform -- makes for a great amount of humor. Of course, it also helps that all of the accusations levelled are way too close to reality for comfort (Can you imagine Romney or one of his supporters calling on Obama to take a polygraph to prove that he's not an al Qaeda operative? I could. Easily.).

But here's the thing: One of the movie's central tenets is that the candidates themselves are nothing more than puppets. Their every move is dictated by their campaign managers, the Motch Brothers, and whoever else is carrying the purse strings. Cam and Marty are simple pawns in a zero-sum game, and trying to flesh them out as characters takes away from that.

Of course, we all know exactly who to blame for this focus on the candidates. After all, Ferrell and Galifianakis aren't just the stars of this movie, they're also producers. And come to think of it, Ferrell's character is an impossibly foolish loudmouth while Galifianakis is playing a dopey and socially inept oddball. Haven't they already played these characters a couple dozen times before?

On a similar note, we have the ending. For whatever improbable reason, the film tries to end in such a way that everyone goes home happy. A pair of corrupt billionaires have been running the whole show from day one, yet everybody wins when the election is over. This sharp satire of American politics ends with a feel-good appeal to the American way of life. It doesn't remotely work. The ending feels so contrived and so counter to the rest of the film that it's borderline insulting. It disappoints me that this movie came so close to being a sharp, shocking condemnation of U.S. politics, only to deliberately flub the landing.

That's not to say the movie doesn't have shocking or funny moments, however. I must reiterate that Jason Sudeikis, Dan Aykroyd, John Lithgow, and Brian Cox all turn in very funny supporting roles. Also, when Cam accidentally punches a baby in slo-motion over "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," God help me, I couldn't help laughing. When this movie is on point, it is on fire.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the movie does have teeth. It's just that those teeth could have -- and absolutely should have -- been sharper.

So, bottom line: Is The Campaign worth watching? Well, none of the satire is nearly as dark, as shocking, or as devastatingly accurate as what you'd find in "The Daily Show," "The Colbert Report," or In The Loop. It's a damn shame, since this movie did have the potential to reach those lofty heights. It had a solid cast, the political commentary had some powerful moments of clarity, and there were plenty of laughs to go around.

The movie was easily funny and clever enough that I can recommend a viewing. In particular, any fans of political satire should see this film immediately.

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