The agenda of director Jay Roach’s new movie is obviously not to mine the finer nuances of American electoral procedures. This might come as a shock or a relief, depending on whether you go into The Campaign remembering Roach as the politically-minded maker of HBO’s Recount and Game Change or you only know him from the Fockers films. In any case, now Roach has split that difference. His agenda, for what it’s worth, is lowbrow bipartisan spoofery.
Well, America, what is it worth? In The Campaign, Will Ferrell plays an entrenched North Carolina congressman challenged by an unlikely opponent in the form of Zach Galifianakis. Unlikeliness, of course, used to be the Galifianakis touch; here it’s a dull nudge, or whatever you want to call a weary reprise of the prissy oaf he played in Due Date. Meanwhile Ferrell looks to have hauled out his old George W. Bush impression, and sensing the staleness, hosed it off with a splash of randy John Edwards. The setup alone is a bloodless, been-there farce. But maybe that sends a message of safety and security. So can it count on your vote?
With strings pulled by callous sibling super-funders modeled on the Koch brothers and played by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd, the candidates’ contest escalates from gaffe-intensive buffoonery to the brinksmanship of outrageously dirty mud- slinging. Among a clutter of pundits tediously playing themselves, Jason Sudeikis and Dylan McDermott show up as rival campaign managers, respectively servile and shark-like. Before long it’s a slog, quite like a real campaign but otherwise too broad a cartoon and too soft a satire, full of cheap shots at easy targets and many scattered bits of uninspired vulgarity. (Inspired vulgarity would be fine.)
Writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell try to repurpose the usual campaign movie clichés as punchlines but can’t fully forsake their pieties; Roach and his complacent stars take that cue to churn out a film whose sentimental fizzle-ending “heart” seems as much of a cynical calculation as the politically corrosive corporate profiteering it limply sends up. Ultimately this sort of thing is best on cable, and eventually channel-surfed away from. Richer parodies remain available on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” as does the parody that writes itself, regularly, in current events.
Someone, somewhere may think the timing of The Campaign’s release is politically motivated. Although scarcely issue-driven, or challenging in any real way, it does seem to have gotten shoved into the doldrums of the August dumping-ground, between peak summer blockbusters and autumn’s onset of prestige pictures. At best it offers a vacation of sorts, some recuperative last laffs before the grim home stretch of real-life campaigning carries us into November. And if the it’s-all-a-joke mindset feels neither constructive nor cathartic, it does have the dubious virtue of staying forever unserious.
The Campaign/R, 88 minutes/Carmike Cinema 6
Carmike Cinema 6 973-4294
Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6 979-7669
Regal Seminole Square Cinema 4 978-1607
Vinegar Hill Theatre 977-4911