Some political satires are determined not to offend one side or the other too much, refusing to take on hot-button topics directly and refraining from naming names, or sometimes even party affiliations. Some of that’s true of The Campaign, too, but only up to a point. Directed by Jay Roach, the Austin Powers and Meet The Parents veteran who recently helmed a pair of HBO political dramas—Recount and Game Change—the film pits an entrenched Democrat (Will Ferrell) against an upstart Republican (Zach Galifianakis) as they compete for control of a sleepy North Carolina congressional district. But most references to the concerns of the day, with a few key exceptions, remain oblique to the point of abstraction. Except one: the way elections get bought and sold in the era of Super PACs. It isn’t really about the political issues of the moment, but neither, the film suggests, are the politics of the moment.
The Campaign isn’t, by any definition, a subtle film. (At one point, a character says, “Big Money is running politics in America,” in case anyone has missed the point.) Ferrell’s much-elected character—who merges the unapologetic horndog-isms of a Bill Clinton caricature with an empty-headed enthusiasm for whatever he’s told to do, which recalls Ferrell’s George W. Bush impersonation—seems to determined to get ensnared in every variety of scandal, some Anthony Weiner-like Twitter habits not excepted. Fortunately, it’s funny enough that it doesn’t have to be subtle. In fact, subtlety would just get in the way.
Up in the polls as the film begins, Ferrell watches his approval ratings tumble after an obscene message intended for his mistress ends up on the answering machine of some pious constituents. Scenting blood and a chance to make some money by putting yet another congressman in their pocket, a pair of heartless industrialists modeled after the Koch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, playing characters with the last name “Motch”) handpick Galifianakis to run against the incumbent as a Republican, confident that the political machine can mold even an eccentric, effeminate pug enthusiast into a perfect candidate. To that end, they recruit Dylan McDermott, an alpha-male image consultant with a taste for black clothing and a diamond-hard stare. He steers Galifianakis through an election that begins in absurd dirty tricks and public falls from grace, and just keeps escalating from there.
Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell’s script doesn’t go anywhere unexpected, but it doesn’t have to. The film bets that simply pitting Ferrell and Galifianakis against each other in a political arena is enough. It’s a smart wager. Offering a sweet variation on his fussy, easily offended fraternal alter ego “Seth Galifianakis,” Galifianakis creates an easily wounded stooge whose drive to do the right thing makes him a surprisingly formidable opponent to Ferrell, reminding him why he got into politics beyond the lure of loose women and easy money. There’s heart to the film, and to the characters, both brought to life with the complete commitment of two funny men seemingly immune to movie-star vanity. And if a message about campaign finance reform sneaks in between the laughs, that’s okay too.