We’re used to politicians talking out of both sides of their mouths. “The Campaign” is a political comedy that attempts that feat.
It’s a rude and crude farce that takes broad swipes at the political system and the people who manipulate it. The campaigners themselves are basically puppets — one a crass, lazy Democrat given to giving in to his basest instincts, the other a startlingly ill-informed Republican whose idealism gives way to a cynical makeover to make him more presentable to the North Carolina voters he’s appealing to.
And the voters themselves are ranting, red-faced rubes who can’t stop fulminating long enough to realize that calling the other guy’s pug dogs “communists” is about the silliest thing ever.
But this R-rated comedy, directed by Jay Roach, tries to have it both ways. It straddles the “fair and balanced” fence, making the naive, effeminate Republican (Zach Galifianakis) an idealist backed by the evil Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, doing a “Trading Places”-evil-rich-siblings thing) and the Democrat (Will Ferrell) a boozy, womanizing cynic whose idealism evaporated in high school.
Movies that step on that third rail of filmgoer appeal — politics — always pull their punches. Think of “Swing Vote,” which had a few stinging shots, but no spine, the last election cycle.
Here, the debates have a few chuckles. Challenge your opponent to recite “The Lord’s Prayer,” and hope his campaign aide (Jason Sudeikis, in his one good scene) has to mime out the words from the back of the auditorium. Most of the laughs come from the shocks, which can be shocking.
And the actors are game. Ferrell is in full “Anchor Man”-meets-“Ricky Bobby” mode here, loud, abrasive, big-haired and outrageous. And Galifianakis refines the ditzes he’s made his shtick. But steering clear of anything that might turn off some potential ticket-buyers makes the film feel as focus-grouped and watered-down as the very campaigns it aims to spoof. A little about Chinese child labor, a bit more about rich people running the works behind the scenes, owning voter-machine companies, are as edgy as it gets.
The one unadulterated, fall-on-the-floor running gag in Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell’s script is played to perfection by Karen Maruyama. She’s Mrs. Yao, the maid for Marty’s bigoted dad, forced to talk in a Stepin Fetchit sing-song. Maruyama kills, so much so that they bring her back for an ill-considered bit in the finale.