Longtime North Carolina congressman Cam Brady (Ferrell) finds himself wildly unpopular after he leaves a voicemail message that would make Gennifer Flowers blush on the wrong answering machine (who still has an answering machine?, is one of his defenses). The powerful Motch brothers — Glenn (John Lithgow) and Wade (Dan Aykroyd) — decide that he’s outlived his usefulness and they need to buy themselves a new congressman for his district. Looking for someone easily led, they pick Marty Huggins (Galifianakas), a dopey-seeming tourism official for his small town. Where Cam has a status-focused wife, Rose (Katherine LaNasa), and a fancy house, Marty has a loving wife in Mitzi (Sarah Baker) and a cozier suburban home. A family man and a guy who cares about his community, he seems like the perfect, trouble-free candidate. But Brady isn’t going to give up his seat quietly and while Brady may be many senators short of a quorum, intellectually speaking, the naive Marty seems even goofier by comparison. The Motch brothers aren’t about to let their hand-picked candidate go down, though, so like a suave little devil on Marty’s shoulder, poof, campaign manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) appears and begins to rearrange Marty’s life. Out go the pugs, deemed “Chinese dogs,” and in come a chocolate lab and a golden retriever — which poll well, we’re told.
And speaking of China: The Motches aren’t just buying elected officials for the fun of it. Wealthy businessmen, they plan to build Chinese factories in Cam/Marty’s district — including the low-paid Chinese workers and sketchy environmental regulations — and need to have some politicians willing to sell out their constituents to get the plans approved.
Perhaps it’s the malevolent brothers or the presence of Dan Aykroyd, but this part of the movie — rich jerks playing with macro-systems for their own wealth and amusement and putting the corruption of those systems on display — reminded me of the 1983 Eddie Murphy film Trading Places. There, Aykroyd played a pedigreed broker who is made homeless by two brothers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) who give his vast wealth and social position to con man Eddie Murphy as part of a bet (something about whether or not the position makes the man, if I remember correctly). There, the rich puppet masters are playing with people’s lives for their own amusement. Here, the Motches are playing with the nation’s politics for profit — and, it seems, a bit for fun. In the process, we get a little commentary about the nature of money in modern politics and how hard it is for earnest people to break through the noise of that money and petty scandal with their message.
But just a little commentary. The Campaign only really dips a toe into the pool of commenting on the nature of modern politics, which is too bad. Under all the baby-punching gags and raunchy sex talk, there are moments of smart satire and the movie could have had its Marty pooping-his-pants joke and its larger relevance too. Ferrell (whose “strategery”-having George W. Bush is now at least as much of a part of the popular culture memory of the 2000s as the actual president) is the perfect guy for that kind of multi-level comedy. His biggest, dumbest movies — Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby comes to mind — always have more going on than there initially appears to be.
Wanting the smarter comedy that always felt like it was just a half-step away got in the way of my really enjoying The Campaign. There are funny enough moments — Ferrell is great at just going on, taking the thing just a little bit farther so that the funny thing becomes the absurd thing. Galifianakis is broader than Ferrell but still manages to bring more than just caricature to the movie. But ultimately I felt that The Campaign settled for being OK when it could have been something so much more relevant. B-
Rated R for oh so many things (specifically: for crude sexual content, language and brief nudity). Directed by Jay Roach with a screenplay by Shawn Harwell and Chris Hench, The Campaign is an hour and 37 minutes long and distributed by Warner Brothers.