Before the 2012 presidential election has a chance to get really nasty, “The Campaign” vigorously swoops in to satirize how low things can go between a pair of rival congressional candidates. Will Ferrell plays sleazy incumbent Cam Brady, accustomed to running unopposed in his North Carolina district until Zach Galifianakis’ idealistic Marty Huggins enters the race. Skewering the system without ever going near the issues, this sportive political parody lacks the real-world punch of director Jay Roach’s made-for-HBO dramas “Game Change” and “Recount” but touches on enough of the elements that irk voters to cinch a B.O. majority.
Politics, like religion, tends to be one of those topics that drives audiences away from theaters, lest the beliefs held rile viewers. In “The Campaign,” the laugh-heavy script steers clear of partisan concerns in such a way that all parties can agree. Both candidates are clearly boobs, while the guys to watch out for are the Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), a pair of powerful millionaires looking to rig the election so they can “insource” cheap Chinese labor to the district.
Normally, the Motches would have no trouble manipulating Brady, but a recent indiscretion has tarnished his reputation, forcing the two tycoons to find a new political puppet. Their choice, Marty Huggins, the black-sheep son of an antebellum-minded Southern landowner (Brian Cox), is eager to impress his dad and too clueless to question where his campaign contributions are coming from.
In an era when image has so much to do with a candidate’s odds, Huggins is in desperate need of a makeover. He talks with a lisp, dresses in crazy knitted sweaters Bill Cosby wouldn’t dare wear and oversees a family of butterballs too fat for your average photo op. After the thin-skinned Huggins leaves his first civility brunch in tears, the Motches deploy Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) to whip him into shape.
Brady is ready for a fight, launching a series of political ads that insinuate Huggins may be a Muslim. Huggins retaliates by calling Brady’s own faith into question, forcing his opponent to recite the Lord’s Prayer at the next debate. In another country, the resulting blasphemy could get someone excommunicated; here, it aptly illustrates the character’s hypocrisy and electioneering absurdity.
“The Campaign” opens with a quotation from Ross Perot: “War has rules, mud-wrestling has rules — politics has no rules.” Embracing the film’s R rating, Roach proceeds to illustrate just how flagrant things can get, and yet the humor works because everything connects back to the real world.
When Brady tweets a dirty photo of himself, he isn’t the first politician to do so. Sex scandals, drunk driving and embezzlement are now so commonplace among elected officials that auds won’t think twice about accepting these failings as standard character traits for someone like Brady, whose country-inflected, mock-stupid routine clearly borrows from the George W. Bush impression Ferrell perfected back in his “Saturday Night Live” days.
Galifianakis bases Huggins on a pre-existing character of his own, that of the actor’s socially awkward “twin brother,” Seth, who wears a fanny pack and freezes up on camera. Seth’s trademark insecurity nicely suits Huggins’ underdog complex, explaining why he would be willing to ignore his wife (Sarah Baker) for the public attention an election brings.
However nonthreatening Huggins may look, with Wattley’s help, he’s perfectly willing to play dirty. On both sides, the motto is “win at all costs.” But since neither Brady nor Huggins actually stands for anything, it serves to underscore the frustrating nature of the political process. The script by “Eastbound and Down” buddies Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell (who share story credit with Funny or Die co-founder Adam McKay) identifies a big, fat target in what disrespectable sorts will do to get elected, as in the scene where a race to see which of the two candidates will kiss a baby ends with the infant getting punched in the face. Comedy makes an excellent tool to criticize political insincerity, but it doesn’t lessen the fact that such tactics unfortunately work in convincing people to vote against their own best interests.
Roach, who also counts such lowbrow laffers as “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Fockers” on his resume, manages to keep things broad without sacrificing smarts. Where other helmers who have worked with these two leads tend to indulge absurd improvised riffs, Roach keeps things focused, resulting in an all-around tight and polished package.