The Campaign

Gen X Review The CampaignWe’re a society of masochists.

This is the only explanation for something like The Campaign, a mostly unfunny satire which doesn’t even begin to touch the cruel comedy of this election year. There’s a term for people who want too much of a bad thing and it rhymes with “sacks of shit.”

Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is a creature of politics, the sort of guy who has mastered the spin. A career politician from North Carolina, Cam’s Congressional campaign is all-but locked up when he suddenly makes a gaffe of epic proportions. As his poll numbers nosedive, a pair of 1%ers (the Motch brothers played by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) decide to put forward an opponent to keep their interests in the Tar Heel state.

Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) is the fruity son of a former political strategist. A small-town nobody, Marty runs the local trolley tour business and waxes poetic about the virtues of nowhere USA. Sounding a bit like Stuart Smalley from SNL and living the perfect American nightmare with his chubby, unlikable family, Marty is less a character than an excuse for Galifianakis to wear bad sweater vests.

The debates and political games that follow run the gamut from mostly stupid banal fart humor to slightly less stupid banal fart humor. By the end both characters are utterly unlikable stereotypes, which isn’t as bad as it sounds since they begin as utterly unlikable stereotypes.

Ok, ok, ok – The Campaign isn’t a bad movie, it’s just worse than it has to be and it really doesn’t need to be very good to begin with. Most of the jokes are recycled from real life political mishaps, Ferrell has simply reused his George W. Bush impersonations from SNL, and the message of the film – that we can win if we stay true to our values – is so trite and stupid that it doesn’t just insult our intelligence, but water boards it into submission.

As cynical and manipulative as the film is, it isn’t nearly cynical enough. In this alternative world, the bad guys are easily identified, like the Motch brothers, by how deeply they are embedded in the political machine. Because there is an inside to this system, there is also an outside, a place where organic communities survive and people “speak from the heart.”

In the real world, politics infiltrate every aspect of everyday life. It shapes communities into voting districts, frames questions in ways that predetermine their answers, even defines the legal meaning of the body. There is no pure and organic exterior to politics just as there is no real beyond ideology.

The candidates in The Campaign are basically sock puppets for agents that understand how to wield true power. Even Cam really only succeeds when others tell him what to do and how to gain public support. But the tactics they use – Marty tricking Cam’s son into calling him dad, Cam seducing Mart’s frumpy wife – seem absolutely grade school compared to the smear tactics of our real-life political operatives.

And speaking of grade school… Apparently Cam and Marty went to the very same school, although they obviously didn’t run in the same circles. The impetus for Cam to get involved in politics, a rusty jungle Jim at that school, also left its permanent scars on Marty in more than one way.

So again we’re dealing with a previous time that stands in stark contrast to the now with all of its cynicism and spin control. In the long imagined innocent childhood Cam ran on what he thought was right; now he merely works as a cog in the political machine, in many ways indistinguishable from any other congressman.

Which is how I feel about the film: it is essentially unremarkable.


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