Red State, Blue State: The Campaign Finds Comfortable Seat As a Cut-and-Dried Will Ferrell Vehicle

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‘The Campaign’ (Warner Bros.)

Game Change director Jay Roach’s new political comedy, The Campaign, is a good film, though it might disappoint viewers who came to see a scathing satire of our current political climate. The Will Ferrell vehicle has less to do with the upcoming election cycle—or even politics in general—than it does with paying homage to the Aesop’s Fables films of the ’80s, in which the hapless tortoise was plucked from relative obscurity by the nefarious powers that be to replace the cocky, no-longer-cooperative hare.

Primary Colors, this is not.

North Carolina congressman Cam Brady (Ferrell) is the small-town incumbent who has coasted through each election by virtue of being the only candidate running. But a phone-sex scandal—reminiscent of that of Anthony Weiner, though sexting doesn’t come into play until later—threatens to make him too much of a risk for the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd)—a sure nod, last names and all, to a certain Tea Party-funding duo—two Washington businessmen who plan on turning a profit by “insourcing” Chinese factories. They need a new pawn in Congress, and they find him in the pudgy Marty Huggins (Zach Galifiankis), a pug-loving weirdo who runs a failed bus tour service.

Thus begin the endless montages, as Marty is trimmed and tailored into an ever-more-attractive candidate with the help of a terrifying ninja of a campaign manager (Dylan McDermott) and Cam’s life deteriorates through the increasingly debased tactics the brothers Motch employ. The film is filled with the requisite talking heads—Chris Matthews, Ed Schultz, Lawrence O’Donnell, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and Willie Geist (apparently the film made a deal with MSNBC before shooting)—“reporting” with unnatural interest on this small-town rivalry.

Without spoiling it, by the end the two men learn that they should be setting their sights on the real enemy instead of each other. In this way, The Campaign fits the formula of the frenemy-cum-bromance genre, which can be set in any world: that of fashion (Zoolander), the police (The Other Guys) or con men (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). Almost every Will Ferrell vehicle is a spin on the story of two men who hate each other eventually working together to overcome greater adversity, and some might find The Campaign to be the same old shtick, albeit with a new sidekick riding shotgun.

For all its toilet humor, pop culture allusions—Cam makes a sex tape with Marty’s wife, only to find his poll numbers going up—and broad comedy, The Campaign is a failure of political satire; its teeth have been pulled so as to test well across all states and parties during an election year. Its saving grace is not in the concept but in the execution. Jay Roach and his writers (Eastbound and Down’s Shawn Harwell and Chris Henchy, with a “story by” credit to longtime Ferrell pal Adam McKay) have made sure that audiences won’t miss the references to Trading Places, the 1983 comedy in which Mr. Aykroyd played one of the maliciously rich Duke Brothers, the puppeteers behind a similar stunt.

“That wasn’t unintentional,” Mr. Roach told The Observer at the New York premiere’s after party about the reference of Mr. Aykroyd’s role. But Trading Places, for all its humor, had real-life impact: the “Eddie Murphy Rule” actually went into effect as Section 136 of the Wall Street Transparency and Accountability Act.

The Campaign is unlikely to have such a far-reaching effect. It’s a funny film, but one that feels a lot like this year’s political coverage—we’ve seen this story before, and we know how it’s going to end.

THE CAMPAIGN

Running Time: 85 minutes

Written by Chris Henchy, Shawn Harwell and Adam McKay (story)

Directed by Jay Roach

Starring Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Dan Aykroyd

2.5/4