Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is a Democrat running for Congress in South Carolina. Here’s all you need to know: “America, Jesus, and freedom.” And he’s a man with strong hair. Running unopposed, as usual, he is certain to be reelected.
That is, until he accidentally leaves a grotesquely sexual message intended for his mistress on the wrong answering machine—that of the whitist Christian family in America, at prayer.
Welcome to The Campaign.
Brady defends this mistake by claiming that, out of the 10,000 or so messages he’s left on answering machines, maybe 1%, tops, have gone to to the wrong family.
But the evil Motch Brothers (read Koch Brothers) see an opening into the race, which will allow their evil schemes to walk into the halls of the Capitol to the delight of their bank accounts.
The brothers decide to pin their hopes on none other than Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a Republican, and the son of a man who insists his Asian housekeeper affect a Butterfly McQueen/Gone with the Wind accent—you know, like the good old days. You get the sense that this gentle man is the product of a family you wouldn’t wish on Charles Manson. Huggins is also in deep denial about his sexual orientation, or perhaps just permanently ensconced in his “happy place” as a way of coping with scenes from an awful childhood. Married with two hideous sons, Huggins is no match for the dirty trickster and professional politician that is Cam Brady. And so the Evil Motch Brothers call in some extra help—Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), a man so intense he can melt gold just with his indifference, and who is intent on manning Huggins up and winning this thing.
Sound funny? It was, occasionally. The writers and director Jay Roach (the Austin Powers films,the Meet the Parents films) try and keep the hilarity bipartisan, and are only partly successful (as you would imagine). While Ferrell seems to be doing his SNL George W. Bush schtick, it’s also clear that he is channeling the sexual mores of Bill Clinton and Anthony Weiner. The only person Galifianakis seems to be channeling is Richard Simmons. And while the Democrat is an awful, solipstic NAFTA sellout, we don’t really see any Democrats per se, that is, larger representatives of the party machine.
Marty, however, is a decent family sort who rises to the occasion in a good way. It’s the folks behind him who are those awful (Hollywood stereotypical) Big Money Republicans (played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, because Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy are dead). These monsters want literally to sell Huggins’s district to China and “insource” the labor with Chinese workers @ 50 cents an hour.
I was surprised that the film hadn’t done better box office; the theater I was in was completely empty, except for me, which is kind of a given, no? Then it started. The language and sexual references are deadly—in that they literally kill the joke by calling attention to themselves. You forget you’re supposed to be laughing because you’re too busy being icked out. (Although I could be wrong about the cause and effect: look at the success of Bridesmaids.)
Which is not to say I wasn’t convulsing like a meth addict a few times. During a town hall meeting, Huggins pulls out a copy of “Rainbowland,” a work of fiction penned by an eight-year-old Brady, and touts it as another Communist Manifesto because a talking bear gives a leprechaun a pot of gold (redistribution of wealth!). A rabid Huggins supporter jumps up and shouts: “I WON’T LIVE IN RAINBOWLAND AND YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!”
“IT’S A WORK OF FICTION! IT’S NOT REAL!” bellows Brady.
Brady is no slouch at the bit of a stretch, coupling Huggins with al-Qaeda because both favor facial hair. And there are just too many unanswered questions …
(The funniest scene to my mind entails Huggins telling off the Motches and his old man and storming out of the Motch mansion. Unfortunately, the door will not open, thereby dampening the dramatic effect of his principled exit. Suddenly, everyone becomes very helpful: “You have to jiggle the knob.” “Jiggle it. You have to jiggle it.” “Jiggle and lift.” “I’m jiggling and lifting, it won’t—” “Jiggle, lift, and push.”)
And then there’s Brady’s unfortunate tendency to punch babies and puppies when he’s really trying to sock Huggins. (Although the sex video he releases of him having sex with Huggins’s wife does result in a spike in the polls. “Really?” asks an incredulous Joe Scarborough on Morning Joe.)
And since this is South Carolina, if you’re not perceived as a “good Christian” who attends church weekly, you’re toast. So off to the black churches, snake handlers, and synagogue go the candidates. (With predictable results.) When Huggins puts Brady on the spot during a debate to recite the Lord’s Prayer, what ensues is both silly and crude, which, again, made me more uncomfortable than high-sterical.
A couple of more goofy sidekicks, à la Anchorman, would have gone a long way to thickening the yucks. And of course, a PG-13 rating probably would have helped, too. The writers would have had to rely more on their imaginations, and not just memories of frat-house banter, to construct the gags.
In the end, if you have a strong stomach for nine-year-olds talking about doing disgusting things with zoo animals and Altoids, then go ahead, spend a scant 85 minutes with The Campaign.
Otherwise, you may want to wait until this hits free TV. I do wonder whether they have a TV-friendly version of the dialogue. If so, it will be interesting to see if it proves funnier than the original.
On a scale of 1–36 Grumpy Old Men, I give The Campaign 22 2/3 Grumpies.