Hitting theaters tomorrow, the new Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakis vehicle The Campaign is funny, very funny, filled with ingenious set pieces and inspired characterizations by its marquee leads and a gifted supporting cast — and that’s what most of those who see it care about. It is a broad, goofy farce that earns its R-rating with a vast array of sexual and scatological material, but in spite of the crassness we tend to associate with those gags, The Campaign is one of the year’s smartest films, using its vulgarity for cover while smuggling in the kind of piercing and penetrating social commentary seldom seen in a major studio release. It’s a sly, timely, spot-on political satire — in a sniggering dick-joke comedy’s clothing.
Ferrell, doing one of his trademark confident-moron turns, plays Cam Brady, a blow-dried, womanizing schmuck with a faux-populist streak running unopposed for his fifth term for Congress. But his philandering is starting to make him look vulnerable, so an unknown is plucked from obscurity to run against him: Marty Huggins (Galifiankis), who runs his hometown tourism board and is the black-sheep son of a local political legend. Brady assumes he’s gonna steamroll the poor, inexperienced weirdo, but Marty’s campaign manager (an electrifying Dylan McDermott) is a pro, and his slick make-overs and talking-point education — along with Brady’s tendency for spectacular gaffes under pressure — turns the outsider into a contender.
It doesn’t take a political scientist to read between the lines here: Ferrell’s Brady is clearly modeled on John Edwards, while Galfianakis’ Huggins seems a composite of the Christine O’Donnells, Sharon Angles, and Ken Bucks that made a shambles of seemingly winnable races in the 2010 election. But the words “Tea Party” are never uttered, and the picture plays surprisingly fair for a product of what Fox commentators and Brietbart minions love to brand “liberal Hollywood” — Brady is just plain vile, and while Huggins is an idiot, Galfianakis’ natural likability makes his character remarkably sympathetic.
The filmmakers bring out the knives when dealing with the men behind the Huggins campaign: the “Motch brothers” (played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), barely-veiled-at-all riffs on the multi-billionaire industrialists and Republican-funding Koch brothers. “My brother and I are job creators,” Glenn Motch explains, early in the film, “and because of that, we’re candidate creators.” The film’s portrayal of the Motches as vile, greedy puppet-masters is bold and rather ballsy. (The Kochs are aware of the film, and are not amused.)
For the political junkie portion of the audience, the Motch material will play as sly little jabs, almost inside jokes. But the majority of the audience for The Campaign may be entirely unaware of the Kochs, whose profile has only gone national, with as much resistance as possible, over the past couple of years. They are cast as the villains, and that’s appropriate; the much-decried political gridlock can be traced fairly cleanly to the failure to reform campaign finance, to the damage done by Citizens United that allows political candidates to be legally bought and sold. No one is doing more buying than the Kochs, and bully to the makers of The Campaign for calling them out.
But the film’s genius is how cleverly it does so. Writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell and director Jay Roach (whose credits run the gamut from Austin Powers and Meet the Parents movies to the HBO movies Recount and Game Change) sometimes go for the cheap, easy laughs that their R rating allows — but considering the kind of genuine political commentary they’re slipping into this thing, the sex and shit jokes are the proverbial spoonfuls of sugar. Co-producer Adam McKay (who receives a story credit) did this kind of thing less gracefully in The Other Guys, a Ferrell-fronted spoof of buddy cop movies that worked in a subplot about the financial crisis and concluded with an entertaining but undeniably preachy end credit animation detailing the various shady dealings responsible for the economic collapse.
This time, they play it safe; audiences who care little about politics and politicians (beyond the lazy but all too common “they all suck” ethos) will find plenty to laugh at in The Campaign. But they’ll also hear all about the terrible industrial billionaires who are running too much of the show, and the corrupt politicians they’ve got in their pocket. Don’t worry, though, it’s ultimately all fiction; in this imagined world, there are candidates who will actually stand up to the Koch Brother surrogates. That comes out of necessity, we can presume — the political landscape of The Campaign may be familiar, but a realistic ending, when you get down to it, is just too damned depressing.