Available on DVD just in time for the election, “The Campaign,’ a raunchy, fitfully hilarious comedy starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, comes uncomfortably close to the reality of this year’s slime-filled actual political wars. The two comics play Cam Brady, a four-term Republican representative who is running unopposed in a district in eastern North Carolina, and a small town tour guide and general schlub, Marty Higgins, decides at the last minute to run against him. Higgins is backed by the billionaire Motch brothers—a transparent reference to the Koch brothers who have bankrolled anti-Obama Super-PACs.
See, the Motch boys (played with suitably obnoxious pomposity by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) plan to build three Chinese factories in Tarheel Country, saving lots of money by paying below subsistence wages and fending off the EPA through their very own bought and paid for Congressman. Marty, whose political experience extends only to his father (Brian Cox) having run Jesse Helms’ senatorial campaigns, is blissfully unaware of his benefactors’ plans, seeing only the promise of jobs and prosperity for his backwater townspeople. The Motches hire experienced political operative Tim Wattely (Dylan McDermott) to instruct Marty in the dirty tricks of the trade, countering the efforts of Cam’s campaign manager, Mitch (Jason Sudeikis).
Against all odds—but again not too far from reality—Marty catches and passes Cam in the all-important polls, which dictate every escalation in the battle. Not the brightest bulb on the tree, Cam ups the ante by seducing Marty’s pudgy little wife, Mitzi (Sarah Baker), and making a TV spot boasting about it. Of course, politics being what they are these days, Cam’s poll numbers soar when it’s discovered that he gave Marty the cuckold’s horns.
Screenwriters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell put together some darkly funny bits about the candidates and their families, most of which earn the movie its “R” rating for language and “crude sexual content.” Director Jay Roach fares well with these and the numerous cameos by the very TV personalities we have watched on convention coverage, shifting between bits so quickly that the comic momentum stays high. (There’s even a barkless cameo appearance by Uggie, the canine star of “The Artist.”) When that lags or turns sentimental, as it does at the end, the film gets predictable and soft, dulling the satiric edge it has established in the early going.
“The Campaign” won’t be winning any awards (or elections), but it does serve as a helpful reminder of the absurd state of our politics in the post-Citizens United era. The obscene mountains of cash spent by the campaigns have not, unhappily, generated anywhere near as much light as they have heat, this year, though they will likely determine the closeness and the outcome of many races. As one character remarks, “When you’ve got the money, nothing is impossible.”