The new comedy called The Campaign is supposed to be an up-to-the-minute satire of contemporary politics—a story about a mudslinging race for Congress in North Carolina between a blow-dried Democratic incumbent caught in a sex scandal and a wide-eyed naïf Republican recruited to challenge him by two nefarious billionaires (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow).
The outline of the movie makes it seem promising. With two months to go before the election, the unopposed Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) leaves a salacious phone message for his mistress on the answering machine of a deeply religious family. His favorability ratings plunge. The billionaires decide he’s a liability—they are trying to get a plant with Chinese-level wages built in his district—and look around for someone to put up against him.
They settle on Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the loser son of a prominent Republican. He doesn’t have a chance until the hard-bitten billionaire-supplied campaign manager (Dylan McDermott) gives him a makeover. Marty wins the first debate and, in a tussle in the hallway afterward, Cam throws a punch. Marty ducks, and Cam’s fist collides with the face of a baby. From there, things get wilder and crazier.
As liberal Hollywood portrayals of American political contests go, this one is pretty benign unless you happen to be one of the Koch brothers, in which case you have every right to be outraged. But I don’t actually think the Kochs—here called the “Motches”—have much to fear for their reputations from this film. The Campaign is so painfully, horribly, dreadfully unfunny it’s like being trapped around the holiday table listening to your annoying uncle tell a bad dirty joke that goes on for an hour and a half. I wouldn’t say it’s one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, but it may be the worst movie I’ve seen this year.
It’s chiefly interesting as a study of the contempt Hollywood feels for the mass audience it desperately tries to court. The Campaign’s producers, writers, and director clearly think the very people they want to come see the movie are morons who wouldn’t be able to understand, follow, or enjoy a comic exposé of the workings of cynical and desperate political campaigns. So, to keep them interested, screenwriters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell and director Jay Roach slow the jokes down, make them as obvious and overstated as possible, pump the mugging up, and film with shiny bright colors. What they’ve ended up with is satire that would, but for its potty mouth, fit right in on the Disney Channel.
If there’s one thing Americans have seen and will be seeing more of, it’s blatantly dishonest and crude political commercials. Instead of taking reality and tweaking it a little, which is what satire does at its best, The Campaign’s filmmakers offer up commercial parodies that even the most witless person on earth would recognize as ridiculously over the top. There’s one featuring Ferrell’s character in a clandestinely taped sex act that we’re told is a campaign commercial. After it airs, director Roach pulls the now-tiresome bit of having MSNBC and CNN hosts comment on it—with Mika Brzezinski claiming the ad has improved Cam’s numbers.
At another moment, a candidate proclaiming his own honesty confesses to a self-pleasuring technique and receives cheers and plaudits for it. (The Campaign is bizarrely obsessed with masturbation, with at least four characters pausing to discourse on the subject.) Jokes like these suggest a panicked fear of the subject matter The Campaign has chosen to present, and an unwillingness to accept that even teenage boys might find depictions of adult misbehavior and rotten conduct amusing without recourse to sniggering witlessness.
There is so much material to be gleaned from the past couple of years—Democrats intervening in Republican primaries to help arrange the victories of the candidates they think would be easiest to beat, House members physically attacking media folk who have the audacity to film them—that The Campaign’s failure to exploit any of it makes the film not only a massive dud but a colossal missed opportunity.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.