The result is The Campaign, which opens with the re-election bid of Democratic North Carolina congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell). And after eight years, he stands for nothing but saying whatever he has to say to get elected, even if he doesn't understand what he's saying and is generally more interested in getting laid. This time around, it doesn't seem like it will matter, since he's going to run unopposed. But a pair of powerful businessmen, the Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) have big plans for the district that require a patsy. And they think they've found one in Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the earnest head of the local tourism board who's thrilled at the opportunity to help his community and maybe also prove to his dad (Brian Cox) that he's not a loser.
Thus begins a war between two supremely unqualified candidates that sometimes feels fueled by pure envelope-pushing crudeness—and it's not too shabby on that count. Screenwriters Chris Henchy (Ferrell's The Other Guys) and Shawn Harwell (Eastbound and Down) concoct a number of terrific over-the-top moments: the vulgar wrong-number phone call from Brady to his mistress that winds up going public; the insistence by Huggins' old-South dad that his Asian-American housekeeper speak like a sassy black woman; the series of confessions that ensues when Huggins asks his family members about any embarrassing secrets that could come back to hurt the campaign. When it's content to indulge in pure, unadulterated anarchy—like creating a Brady campaign ad celebrating his infidelity with a hot babe—The Campaign hits its comedic targets.
But Roach and company also want to offer up caustic commentary on the nature of the American political process, and they don't really know how to make that work in a movie that also includes a baby getting punched in the face. He finds a couple of effectively absurd moments in the reactions of partisans to the candidates' pointless, distracting character attacks, like Huggins turning a story Brady wrote in second grade into proof of his opponent's latent socialism. And then there are moments when The Campaign starts to get way too sincere about wagging its finger at mud-slinging, vapid politicking, including the protestations of Brady's long-time campaign manager (Jason Sudeikis) about the ruthlessness of his tactics, and speeches about the corrupting influence of money, all accompanied by the now-obligatory cameos by real-life TV pundits. Sacha Baron Cohen may be able to mix scathing political commentary with dick jokes, but clearly that's a harder trick to pull off than it looks.
The Campaign feels most frustratingly tone-deaf in its use of the Koch brothers stand-in Motch brothers, who are played almost completely straight in their scheming manipulations as they try to “insource” Chinese workers for their factories. With smirking references to Citizen United and applause lines directed at the greedy corporate villains, the film slips into pandering populism that, however well-intentioned it might be, just doesn't work when mixed in with the familiar comedy of obliviousness that has served both Ferrell and Galifianakis well in recent years. The result is something that tries to be outrageous and outraged in equal measure, blunting the effectiveness of both approaches. In making his other films, Roach should have learned at least one simple truth about politics: there's almost nothing more important than staying “on message.”
2 1/2 Stars
Directed by Jay Roach
Starring Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis