At least The Campaign was probably fun to shoot

Wednesday September 26th 2012

There’s something more than a bit cosy about the ‘full cast and crew’ page of The Campaign‘s IMDb entry. Director Jay Roach previously worked with stars Zach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell on Dinner For Schmucks and the first two Austin Powers films respectively. Writers Shawn Harwell and Chris Henchy are alumni of Eastbound & Down — which Ferrell exec produces. Producers include Ferrell, Galifianakis, Roach and Adam McKay, a director whose four previous films have all starred Ferrell. The film’s cinematographer, composer and editors also share a number of previous project with the core team.

So yes: The Campaign is essentially an excuse for Ferrell and his mates to spend a few weeks together, have a good time, and get paid. It’s pretty minor league as such films go — after all, it’s basically well-intentioned, raises at least a half dozen laughs and definitely isn’t Grown Ups — but it’s still emblematic of a US comedy scene that’s turning into something of a fraternity.

Here, Ferrell plays Democratic congressman Cam Brady, running unopposed in North Carolina’s 14th District for his fifth consecutive term. Galifianakis plays somewhat to type as camp local tour guide Marty Huggins, manipulated into running on the Republican ticket by the corrupt Koch Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Ackroyd). The basic joke is that politicians don’t necessarily mean what they say, as demonstrated by a sequence in which Brady brands a series of increasingly niche demographics — culminating in Filipino Tilt-a-Whirl operators — ‘this nation’s backbone’. It’s pretty weak stuff, even in the context of Hollywood’s recent dearth of political comedy. Fuck, Veep looks like a masterpiece of satirical precision by comparison.

The film only really finds its footing when utilising Galifianakis and Ferrell’s well-honed talents for physical comedy and improvisation, which are given ample space in the minimal but nonetheless bloated 85 minute runtime. A tendency to veer into gross-out territory recalls this year’s Hollywood-satire-to-beat The Dictator, but where that film used raunch comedy to heighten its already potent political message, The Campaign uses its (considerably tamer) transgressions only to deflect attention from its lack of satirical bite.

Is poking fun at America’s political system a worthwhile use of Ferrell, Galifianakis, Roach, Harwell, Henchy and McKay’s industry heft? Sure, why not — it’s better than making a $50 million medieval stoner comedy. But for all its good intentions, The Campaign‘s hopelessly soft approach to its weighty subject matter gives it the feeling of a film made for the sake of making a film, and one desperate to offend as few people as possible along the way.