Anyone expecting sophistication from Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis’s sloppy-but-enjoyable new political comedy, The Campaign, has plainly led a life crammed with one furious disappointment after another. I can’t believe it’s much of a spoiler to tell you that America wins and politics loses, the contradiction in terms that the big public has feasted on since time immemorial. Movies like this one always let the audience revel in a more or less infantile cynicism about the democratic process by omitting issues, genuinely stubborn ideological divides, the reality of partisanship and the rest of the stuff that gives elections a point. Then a magic finale transforms the Statue of Liberty into a Tinkerbell worth clapping for just the same.
Scooting into the wings in befuddled dismay, the whole squalid system turns irrelevant once some plucky fellow stands up for what’s right—usually, a generic and nonpartisan integrity that sweeps away bad faith and guile. The remarkable persistence of this fantasy sometimes makes me want to mutter that few figures in American history ever had as much stony integrity as Jefferson Davis, putting integrity’s status as the screen’s ne plus ultra of political virtue in a somewhat unwelcome perspective. But never mind.
Even though the Koch brothers made themselves ridiculous by sending forth a luckless flack to complain—wow, all that Death Star mystique shot to shit for this, guys?—I’d advise earnest lefties not to get too excited that The Campaign’s bad guys are a pair of election-rigging billionaires named the Motch brothers. (They’re played by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd, both of whom could clearly deliver a lot more in the way of satire if their parts weren’t so underwritten.) However unlikely it may seem to political junkies, odds are that most of the audience for the movie simply has no idea who the Koches are or what they’re getting up to in this post-Citizens United world of ours. Nor is a movie that’s as eager to please as The Campaign about to risk bumming people out with the nasty particulars or nationwide scope of their agenda (ALEC, voter disenfranchisement, and so on). A good deal less pointed as caricatures of plutocracy go than The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns, Aykroyd and Lithgow are just the familiar ogres who always fee-fie-fo-fum around in this sort of sub-Capra fairy tale before getting their implausible comeuppance.
Ferrell himself plays Cam Brady, a four-term North Carolina congressman who’s running unopposed for re-election until a potty-mouthed phone message to the latest bimbo he’s just extra-maritally boffed goes public. That gives the Motches the idea of finding a patsy to run against him who’ll do their bidding once in office. (They basically want to sell off the whole district to the Chinese, a safe target for xenophobic laughs). Enter Galifianakis as Marty Huggins, a sort of Stuart Smalley manqué who’s just delighted by the honor.
Naturally, he doesn’t have a clue what he’s in for. But he gets his first lesson when Dylan McDermott shows up as an entertainingly over-the-top burlesque of a ruthless political fixer; with his leather jacket, steely eyes, and ultimate investment in nothing at all except his own cool, he’s the campaign manager as badass superstud. (We may well be watching Karl Rove’s most cherished Walter Mitty daydream of himself.) Overnight, he replaces Marty’s beloved pug dogs with more all-American breeds, crams his house with guns and patriotic paintings, and gives not only the new candidate but his whole family a voter-friendly makeover.
A lot of the movie is just abominably directed (by Jay Roach, who did much better with HBO’s Game Change earlier this year). It’s also been edited with about as much deftness as a Bicentennial-era used-car commercial. Yet it’s often very funny. Though Ferrell’s performance isn’t quite in a league with his immortal Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, his knack for incarnating complacent fatuity before trashing it to reveal the demented, reckless head case underneath gets a good workout here.
Galifianakis is more erratic. He’s so at home in one-joke parts that the two-joke demands of playing both the sweetie-pie doofus we meet first and the transformed Marty who’s unleashed on the campaign trail can seem a bit beyond his reach. But then again, Shakespeare this ain’t; he’s still entertaining. And as tame as the movie is in other ways, the slapstick takes on candidates ready to do anything to win have so much crude exuberance—at one point, a sex tape gets turned into a gonzo campaign commercial, and not to the purpose you’d expect—that you’d need a heart of stone not to chortle.
After all, reducing American politics to nothing but rapacious opportunism combined with boundless ego is always fun because it’s never incredible. If tweeting cell-phone pictures of your intimate parts ever became a path to re-election instead of disgrace, who among us doesn’t secretly believe that 535 of them would go viral the next day? (Bring on the shlong, Orrin Hatch! Lookin’ good in that Dietrich rig, Barbara Mikulski!) But in the formula The Campaign hews to, knee-jerk scorn for politicians is always followed by a sentimental reassurance that we’re still all right. Or at any rate, would be if we could somehow junk the messy way we choose our leaders in favor of something akin to a virgin birth.
That’s why it’s no wonder that even successful political comedies—and this one may well be a hit—never spawn sequels. Mr. Smith Stays in Washington by Hook or by Crook isn’t the most appetizing title, now is it? Whether or not Ferrell, who co-produced with Galifianakis and is far from the dumbest guy on the block, realizes that Cam’s tussle with Marty is just the latest example of it, the lesson that generations of Americans have learned from movies is that democracy would be a perfect form of government if only we could do away with elections.