The Campaign Skewers an Easy Target: U.S. Politics

The Ferrell, Galifianakis romp is an amusing but not particularly penetrating political satire.

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That The Campaign is so amusing says more about the political landscape it lampoons than the cleverness of the film itself. It plays in the comedic arena of Old School, Anchorman, and Wedding Crashers, but The Campaign does not come close to reaching those iconic films' sophomoric heights. Nevertheless, in this already overheated presidential election year, The Campaign offers some welcome laughs at the expense of our dysfunctional political system, if one can put aside the terror of how not-far-from-reality this circus actually is.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

Will Ferrell stars as Cam Brady, a Democratic North Carolina congressman running unopposed for his fifth term. Cam's slogan "America, Jesus, Freedom" may have been borrowed from Ferrell's patriotism-on-steroids Talladega Nights riff, but his look is straight from Politico. Cam sports a John Edwards coif, sputters a Bill Clinton drawl, swings a George "Dubya" swagger, and dons an oversized flag pin a la Sarah Palin. Not too far into the film, he also buries himself in an Anthony Weiner-style sex scandal (though the messaging service Cam misuses predates Twitter by many decades).

Cam's indiscretions sink his approval ratings and corporate baron brothers Glen and Wade Motch (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) sense an opportunity to further their Washington influence. Plotting to exploit the humble Carolina district to expand their sweatshop empire, they prop up a GOP challenger in the form of an odd but well-intentioned Marty Huggins, played by Zach Galifianakis. (Galifianakis has already said that the Motches are indeed modeled on the Koch brothers, not that it needed confirmation.)

[Slideshow: Famous Political Sex Scandals]

Marty surrenders his frumpy cardigan and homey virtue to a sinister Motch-hired operative (Dylan McDermott) while Cam's boys club campaign, run by a chummy strategist (Jason Sudeikis), devolves into a desperate and devious operation. The Brady-Huggins race escalates into an all-out romp of raucous debates, ridiculous accusations, and dirty (in both the figurative and pornographic sense) campaign ads, as the childish candidates punch lower and lower below the belt (and a few adorable bystanders while they're at it.)

Expect the typical Ferrell-Galifianakis fare: unwelcome nudity, nicknames involving poop, small animal-implicated antics, children uttering obscenities, and general buffoonery, but a few of the gags rise above the rest. Will Ferrell plays up his booming voice, towering height, and domineering physicality to its usual extremes. The stout Galifianakis, meanwhile, shrinks into a weirdness reminiscent of his Hangover oddities, including a snivelly voice, a slouchy gait, and a complete absence of social norms.

[See the U.S. News review of The Dark Knight Rises.]

Washington watchers will note that many of the jokes, hyperbolic as they are, have antecedents in the political antics of yesterday and today—a communist accusation here, some religious pandering there, and plenty of inside-the-Beltway spin. These references add some sparkle to The Campaign's fraternity-humor veneer, but aren't sharp enough to make it a particularly penetrating satire. The comedy loses steam as the election wraps up all too neatly and predictably, with a red, white, and blue bow on top. The ease at which audiences will surely laugh along with the film will be as if they are in on the joke. But the depths of negativity and falsehood that our real-life, nonfictional politicians are willing to dive to suggest that their campaign managers are banking on otherwise, and The Campaign won't do much to change that.

The Campaign opens in theaters nationwide Friday August, 10.

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  • Tierney Sneed is associate editor of U.S. News Opinion. E-mail her at and follow her on Twitter.