Monday, August 13, 2012

Review: "The Campaign"

Director: Jay Roach
Runtime: 85 minutes

Despite an early penchant for goofball comedies like Austin Powers and Meet the Parents, Jay Roach has evolved into quite the politically minded director. First came 2008's HBO film Recount, which tackled the aftermath of the (still) controversial recounts after the 2000 election. And then, just a few months ago, Roach and HBO gave us a second collaboration - Game Change - that looked behind the scenes of the 2008 election from the standpoint of the McCain/Palin campaign. Despite flashes of humor, both films showed that Roach was capable of doing much more than simply directing comedy vehicles for Ben Stiller. So, with the 2012 election right around the corner, it's not surprising to see a Roach-directed film in theaters centering around politics. The difference, though, is that Roach's latest, The Campaign, is a mix of the sincere political commentary of Roach's Game Change combined with the cartoon wackiness of your typical Will Ferrell comedy. As a result, the film is certainly relevant, but the humor is less successful, and The Campaign feels more like a valiant missed opportunity than a riotously funny political farce.

No stranger to playing larger-than-life oafs, Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a North Carolina Congressman who has never lost an election...because he was always running unopposed.  Over in Washington D.C., the manipulative Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow)   decide that Brady's district would be the perfect spot to pull off a scheme to help them become even wealthier. They decide to fund a candidate to unseat Brady, and settle on Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a sweet oddball of a man who is estranged from his wealthy father (Brian Cox). From there, it's a slowly escalating war of idiocy as Huggins tries to take on Brady.

And just as Ferrell is comfortable playing oafs, Galifianakis is more than comfortable playing oddballs. Marty is a mincing, oddly prissy man who seems incapable of ever becoming angry, and Galifianakis nails the role when it comes to the broad strokes of the part. Unlike Ferrell, Galifianakis has a role that is (somewhat) opened up for an iota of genuine depth. After Brady humiliates Huggins at a supposedly friendly political breakfast, we see Marty walking to his car in tears. But Roach isn't playing up Marty's sadness for laughs. It's nothing heart-wrenching, to be certain, but Roach does allow it to work as a moment that can be played straight. Compared with the all-out silliness that characterized the Austin Powers films, The Campaign marks an interesting evolution in Roach's execution as a comedy director.

That's not to say that the film doesn't include the usual looniness. Most of it stems from Ferrell's side, particularly in the opening stretches before we first meet Marty. Where Marty is built up as a more sincere figures (despite some goofy scenes and lines), Cam is bombastic and hollow, though Roach and Ferrell keep the character from becoming as over the top as so many of the actor's other notable comedic roles. Playing things much more 'straight' is Dylan McDermott as Marty's Motch-appointed campaign manager, who so thoroughly gives Marty's life a make over that he even replaces his dogs (pugs) because they aren't American enough.

It's scenes like this that call to mind broader versions of the "make over" scenes of the Palin family in Game Change, and Roach proves adept at handling the very different forms of execution. Unfortunately, Roach doesn't really elevate the material he's working with, aside from keeping the proceedings from becoming total buffoonery. Though the film maintains a decent momentum, the script jumps unevenly between Brady and Huggins. Rather than feel like a solid look at both candidates, the alignment of scenes gives the feeling that the film would rather just stick with one major character, but then remembers that, oh yeah, there's that other guy. And even though the script has entertaining lines and scenes, they're more mildly amusing than hilarious. In trying to inject a bit of the maturity showcased in Game Change and Recount, Roach has somewhat sedated the broad comedy that the script is striving for. 

So when The Campaign settles into its last act, there's no doubt as to where it's going to go, in terms of narrative and message. Game Change, with its strong rooting in reality, packs more surprise. Ferrell and Galifianakis' talents are decently handled, but at this point in Roach's career, he doesn't seem like such a good fit for this sort of material on the whole. He wants to have dumb laughs and semi-earnest political commentary working side by side. Though it fares better than another Ferrell vehicle (the awful The Other Guys) in striving towards this goal, The Campaign winds up little more than a mildly amusing and thoughtful farce, rather  than a truly hilarious comedy with a thoughtful side.

Grade: C+

1 comment:

Dan O. said...

It has the perfect opportunity to be a biting satire, but just ends up playing it safe and going down the route of a goofy comedy. No problem with that, but the comedy isn’t as funny as I would have liked to hope. Good review J.