"Campaign" For Laughs Fades Fast In Third Act

“The Campaign” is a comedic lightning storm – quick and chaotic, with flashes of brilliance that disappear as quickly as they materialized. With every burst of lightning, we crave that accompanying crash of thunder. The manic, staccato nature of each gag requires that booming, drawn-out rumble in the distance, but it never comes. Some of the biggest laughs are left hanging without resolution and the thin, unbalanced narrative turns into an absolute mess in the third act. What could have been an all-out riot of a comedy instead settles for just being really funny in fits and starts. “The Campaign” is successful in that it provides some inspired moments of hilarity, but its laughs are equaled by the frustration it will provoke from many audiences.

The film features two comedic titans, Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, a veteran comedy director, Jay Roach (“Austin Powers,” “Meet The Parents”), a star-studded supporting cast, and a bawdy screenplay that literally pulls no punches. On paper, it’s all aces. Ferrell plays Cam Brady, an incumbent Democratic congressman from North Carolina who keeps winning re-election after re-election unopposed. A duo of Republican businessmen (John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd) decide to run a candidate against Brady in a corrupt (but nonsensical) plan to line their own pocketbooks. They ultimately the choose the naïve son of a colleague (Brian Cox). This unlikely candidate, Marty Huggins, is played with an unflinching sincerity by Zach Galifianakis.

Brady is a belligerent, dishonest, uninformed, philandering dolt, and Huggins is an childish, soft-spoken, borderline effeminate family man and local tourism guide. The crux of the story is that neither man is fit to represent his district, and most of the jokes result from their ridiculous antics. Their families are as dysfunctional as their political lives, but Brady is his own man (to his detriment) while Huggins quickly becomes a puppet of Lithgow’s and Aykroyd’s characters.

The leads do fine work, but the screenplay bizarrely reduces Ferrell to straight man for much of the film. He gets very little to do in the first act, while nearly everyone else gets involved in the comedy. Karen Maruyama has a particularly funny supporting role as the elder Huggins’ maid. Brady’s campaign manager (Jason Sudeikis) and Huggins’ (Dylan McDermott) get less screen time than the narrative demands, but each holds his own. When Brady and Huggins do get to share the screen (a rarity), the chemistry isn’t anything special. The screenplay provides very little development in their relationship – until the lousy final reel.

The rhythm of the film is agreeable, but its 85-minute running time (including credits) leaves a handful of ancillary characters with nothing to do. When the camera pans over to them for reactions, we recognize them as members of Brady’s or Huggins’ staff, but we have no idea why they’re in the movie. To Jay Roach’s credit, he keeps the big laughs coming every five minutes or so. There’s more downtime than there should be, but it never lasts very long.

The jokes are swift and tawdry, ranging from sight gags (snake bites, drunk driving, Brady’s knack for inopportune punch outs) to bizarre pop culture references (“The Price Is Right” comes up more than once) and typical Ferrell/Galifianakis non-sequiturs (“My heart is beating like a phone book in a dryer” and “That balloon is full of your own butt toots”). Four-letter words fly more often than Brady’s fists, sometimes in lieu of legitimate wit. But, a handful of the jokes are legitimate heavy hitters and if you’re just looking for a few sporadic laughs, you’ll find those here in spades.

If you can recall the misplaced economics lesson from the end credits of Ferrell’s “The Other Guys,” you have an idea what to expect of “The Campaign’s” final minutes (and an exceptionally weak coda). It’s no coincidence that both films were co-written by Chris Henchy. The movie takes a laborious and unearned turn from goofy mockery of our electoral system to blatant proselytizing. The entire film has a cynical undercurrent, but to turn such a silly and wryly political movie into a sermon at the last minute is nearly demeaning and vaguely disingenuous. It’s certainly clunky and disorienting.

“The Campaign” is at its best when it’s not about anything. Jabs are taken at both liberals and conservatives, but the politics of the piece don’t stick like its general absurdity does. If only the narrative had provided more breathing room for its gags and improved its character development, we might have had a special comedy on our hands. However, unlike the recent “The Watch,” this film is often hilarious, as advertised. You won’t be forced to sit through extended periods of uncomfortable silence. But the unheralded “Casa De Mi Padre” is the superior Ferrell comedy of 2012 – more dynamic, more courageous, and more original. As it stands, this “Campaign” is a reliably fun time at the theater, but it doesn’t belong anywhere near the pantheon of great comedies.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Jay Roach
Screenwriter: Chris Henchy, Shawn Harwell
Starring: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Katherine LaNasa, Dylan McDermott, John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd, Brian Cox, P.J. Byrne
MPAA Rating: R (for crude sexual content, language and brief nudity)