To really enjoy The Campaign, it’s best to be a) a Will Ferrell fan; b) a Zach Galifianakis fan; or c) from North Carolina. It isn’t surprising that this comedy about small-town candidates battling to win a seat in Congress is set in the Tar Heel State (by way of Louisiana, with filming taking place before N.C. state lawmakers added $60 million in filmmaking tax incentives this year). Ferrell’s parents hail from Roanoke Rapids and he still has relatives living in Cary. Galifianakis was born and raised in Wilkesboro and attended N.C. State University. Moreover, Nick Galifianakis, Zach’s uncle, was a three-term North Carolina congressman who lost the 1972 election for U.S. Senate to a former television commentator named Jesse Helms, a campaign marred by slogans denigrating Galifianakis’ Greek heritage: “Jesse Helms: He’s One of Us.”
Thus, there’s sneaky significance behind a seemingly offhand remark that the racist father of candidate Marty Huggins, played by Galifianakis, is a GOP heavyweight who once worked as a political operative for Helms. So, too, in the specter of Marty, the town and family eccentric with a heart of gold, pitted against an opponent skilled in the dark art of mudslinging.
Marty is recruited by two wealthy brothers and industrialists (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) to run against four-term congressman Cam Brady (Ferrell), a superficial politician armed with a sculpted coiffure and crowd-pleasing stump speeches about “America, Jesus and freedom.”
Marty, a Southern dandy working as tourism director for the fictitious burg of Hammond, undergoes a makeover led by his shadowy campaign manager (Dylan McDermott). Gone are Marty’s cardigans and twin pugs, replaced by a chocolate lab and a golden retriever that “test well.” His house décor is soon replete with guns, Bibles and mounted deer heads.
The Campaign finds its satirical groove during a series of absurd attacks that nonetheless ring uncomfortably true in today’s political environment. Cam insinuates that the mustachioed Marty has ties to al-Qaida, while Marty trumpets a canyon-colored short story Cam wrote in grade school about a fantasy land where "everything is free" as proof of the incumbent's Marxist leanings.
Ferrell applies his oblivious blowhard shtick to what’s essentially a John Edwards parody (infidelity included). Meanwhile, Galifianakis channels an effeminate manner and lilt that’s a dead ringer for character actor Leslie Jordan. Yet, as the candidates’ tricks become dirtier, so does the film’s content. The ceaseless profanity has little purpose other than to explore the reaches of an R rating. Every woman in sight is a whore or gold digger. And you don’t have to be a red stater to be put off by a gag that conflates sexual innuendo with a line from “the Lord’s Prayer.”
Despite a svelte 85-minute running time, the by-the-numbers plot peters out even before it segues into a contrived climax. Any movie that pads screen time with cable news talking heads playing themselves is already out of things to say—seriously, have Chris Matthews and Wolf Blitzer qualified for SAG cards?
Ferrell and Galifianakis’ outsized personalities, as well as the only known instance in cinematic history of both a baby and dog being punched in the face, can sustain the film only so far. Indeed, the real-life political dots are far more fascinating to connect than any on screen. Otherwise, when it comes to The Campaign, to borrow Marty’s slogan appraising the current state of politics in Washington, D.C., it’s a mess.