Depending on your tastes, Will Ferrell hasn’t played the lead in a truly good comedy since The Other Guys (2010), Blades of Glory (2007) or Anchorman (2004). He’s starred in bad comedies and good sort-of comedies (Stranger than Fiction, for example) but his straight-up comedy muscle, despite plenty of exercise, took a powder shortly after Ron Burgundy.
The Campaign marks a welcome return to Ferrell’s character-driven roots and also stars the great Zach Galifianakis as Ferrell’s foil. It’s a funny and ultimately moral take on politics that’s totally absurd.
Ferrell is Cam Brady, a Republican Congressman from North Carolina running unopposed for a fifth term. When a sex scandal leaves him vulnerable, the Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow playing alternate universe versions of David and Charles Koch) throw their influence and money behind a candidate (Galifianakis’ Marty Huggins) they think will facilitate their business dealings with China.
Huggins is everything Brady is not. He’s a loving husband, doting father and cares deeply about his town. The moment Huggins announces his intention to run, Brady and his campaign go into nasty mode.
The trailers for The Campaign are everywhere by now, so it should come as no surprise that Brady punches a baby following a debate with Huggins. The surprise is that’s the least deplorable thing these candidates do. And yes, even though the joke is telegraphed to the audience, it’s still funny.
Ferrell and Galifianakis play their roles relatively straight, or at least as straight as one can be when punching a baby. It’s a smart choice because the screenplay deposits the characters in one outrageous situation after another, from Brady making a big deal of Huggins’ Chinese pugs to a drunk driving set-up to a sex tape that turns into a campaign ad.
What’s thankfully missing from The Campaign is the unruly we-totally-improvised-this-hilarious-scene feel of Ferrell movies such as Step Brothers and Semi-Pro. The performances seem rooted in each scene and Ferrell and Galifianakis react to the hysterics in character rather than extend a joke past the point of being funny (I’m thinking of the moment in Talladega Nights when Ferrell runs around in his underwear, seemingly forever, believing he’s on fire).
Director Jay Roach may be best known for the diminishing returns of the Austin Powers series, but lately he’s shown a steady hand helming Recount and Game Change for HBO. That steady hand is well used here. Dylan McDermott provides big laughs as Huggins’ sleekly shady campaign advisor and Katherine LaNasa is a woman who knows what politics is really all about.
It may seem The Campaign’s situations are so over the top they don’t resemble the current political climate in the U.S. But watching 10 minutes of political ads on YouTube puts that notion to rest. And at least The Campaign is funny.
Regal Santa Fe Stadium 14, R, 85 min.