Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Campaign movie review

For F*** Magazine, Singapore


Starring: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Dylan McDermott
Directed by: Jay Roach

It has been said that politics is show-business for ugly people; and an election year is as good as any for politics and show-business to properly collide. Jay Roach, who has helmed his fair share of comedies (the Austin Powers movies, Meet the Parents) and political films (Recount, Game Change) takes the reins and lets Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis loose; the shenanigans guaranteed to abound. As the tagline on the poster goes, “may the best loser win”.

Ferrell plays Cam Brady, Congressman of North Carolina’s 14th District who has gone uncontested for four terms and is about to take his fifth, with his loyal campaign manager Mitch (Sudeikis) helping him along. However, he suffers an embarrassing scandal and corrupt businessmen the Motch Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) aim to capitalize on this by sponsoring their own candidate to run against him. Enter Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), the son of their associate Raymond (Brian Cox). Huggins is slovenly, slow-witted, genteel and good-hearted – everything Brady is not. Naturally, the slick career politician underestimates his inept opponent and writes him off.

The Motch brothers dispatch expert campaign manager and image consultant Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) to overhaul the Huggins family, wife Mitzi (Sarah Baker) included and coaches Marty in creating an appealing facade to his voters. His poll numbers are also boosted when Cam punches a baby by mistake, and both parties get on with the mudslinging. It appears that in the midst of such fiascos as Cam getting bitten by a snake in a church, Marty shooting Cam in the leg with a rifle and various audacious campaign ads, Cam may be growing a conscience and Marty may be reluctantly letting go of his. In the background, the scheming Motch brothers are edging closer to their shady master plan and the two candidates may have to put down their swords and realise what really matters in their lives.

If you’re in need of a laugh or two, take part in this campaign. It is, first and foremost, a comedy, and is successful in that regard. Outrageous moments unfold in what’s presented as our world, established via cameos by news personalities such as Wolf Blitzer, Piers Morgan and Chris Matthews as themselves. It provides some grounding for several gut-busting sequences of outlandish humour which clearly couldn’t take place in the real world – though seeing how crazy American politics can get, we can’t be sure of that. Comedies of this nature can sometimes fall into a pattern of predictability when one can telegraph the gags a mile away, and while many of the best bits are in the trailers, there are still some moments that caught this reviewer delightfully off guard. “Never work with children or animals,” goes the quote attributed to W.C. Fields – thing is, children and animals are ripe sources of humour and the film knows this very well. The awkward scene where Marty has his wife and two sons own up to any skeletons in their closets while at the dinner table is the height of cringe comedy, and Marty’s two pugs (whom Cam labels as “Chinese dogs”) are funny even when they just sit there. There’s also a priceless cameo from a popular animal star who has gained fame in the past year for his role in an Oscar-winning film.

Being centred on a political campaign (hence the title) the film’s two most important assets are its leads. Ferrell and Galifianakis have made their names as cinematic schmucks – two different kinds of schmucks, but schmucks nonetheless. Ferrell’s Cam Brady is all haughty pandering, his overly-coiffed hair the best display of his hubris. Galifianakis augments the timbre and cadence of his voice to come off as the pudgy, odd, lovable idiot who pays little attention to his self image. Galifianakis’ uncle Nick actually ran for Congress in North Carolina, so he has some personal history there. When the two clash, it’s a real hoot to watch and it is oddly satisfying to see Marty one-up Cam after the latter has dealt out so much shame to him.

The show is almost entirely taken from out under both their noses by Dylan McDermott as Tim Wattley. The handsome actor, best known from TV’s The Practice, is suave, tough, decisive and almost omnipresent as the ‘magical’ campaign manager and Mr Fix-it. He’s never seen outside of a sharp suit or stylish leather jacket and invades the private space of Huggins with no qualms whatsoever. It’s not an inherently ultra-funny part, but McDermott plays it just right – not too flat and not wildly over-the-top – such that he manages to steal Ferrell and Galifianakis’ thunder. On the other camp, Sudeikis is pretty good too as Cam’s campaign manager Mitch. He’s playing the straight man to Ferrell, in essence, who has his head screwed on tighter than Cam does and whose advice Cam often blithely ignores. Sudeikis’ moment to shine is when Mitch has to mime the words to the Lord’s Prayer when Marty puts Cam on the spot, the latter having forgotten how the prayer goes. It’s a bit of a pity that veterans Brian Cox, John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd are somewhat wasted in their limited roles, though.

The main point of contention with The Campaign is how very broad the comedy can be at times. It seems that Roach takes a baseball bat to the hide of the American political system, when in some instances a sharp needle would have worked better instead. The movie often opts for cruder situations more likely to draw a reaction and ends up sacrificing some degree of insight in the process. A political comedy would probably be more suited to a darker tone and jabs of a subtler and more elegant nature, as opposed to the post-Apatow comic stylings on display here. Don’t get us wrong, it is still very funny, just not as biting or observant as it could have been, given the material and timing of its release.

SUMMARY: The Campaign promises laughs and doles them out in spades, but doesn’t use its platform to examine and scrutinize the system via its comedic lens as well as it could have.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong


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