The Campaign, directed by Jay Roach and starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, as rival Congressional candidates fueled by Super PAC donations and campaign staff provided by a pair of sinister industrialist brothers, appears to have already gotten under the skin of its main targets. Earlier this week, a spokesman for major right-wing and libertarian donors Charles and David Koch went on the offensive, suggesting it would be stupid to take advice or ideas from comedians and their movies. Whether the movie, a blunt indictment of the influence of money in politics, affects audiences the same way is another question. At 85 minutes, it’s a slight gathering together of several ideas and a number of brutally brilliant jokes, the two best of which don’t even involve the brawling incumbent Congressman Cam Brady (Ferrell) and insurgent Marty Huggins (Galifianakis, in high holy fool mode). But given that the point of The Campaign is that we’re governed by people other than our elected officials, perhaps that makes artistic as well as political sense.
The action begins when Cam, a Congressman with the hair and weakness for hot superfans of John Edwards, the faux-folksy barn jacket of Scott Brown, and the willingness to boink anywhere that Hustler once attributed to the Rev. Jerry Falwell, accidentally leaves a dirty phone message that he intends for his mistress on the machine of a nice evangelical family (lead by 30 Rock‘s Jack McBreyer). Sensing his vulnerability, billionaires Wayne and Glenn Motch see an opportunity to implement a plan they’ve been wanting to try out, and one of the movie’s most effective jabs. If they elect a sufficiently dumb Congressman in a district where they own property, they can convince him to request waivers that would lower the district’s wage and environmental standards below China’s, and save money on shipping by bringing in Chinese immigrant workers to make their products in toxic conditions in the United States. They settle on tourism bureau director Marty, a genial idiot obsessed with his two pugs, his family, and the withheld approval of his father (Brian Cox), a man so nostalgic for the racist past that he pays his his housekeeper, Mrs. Yao (a very funny Karen Maruyama), to do her best Butterfly McQueen. “Isn’t he the weird one,” Glenn Motch asks of Marty. “Has weird ever stopped us before?” Wayne Motch asks him.
The Motchs dispatch ace political candidate Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) to Hammond County to, as he puts it to Marty, “make you not suck,” given that “the focus group words that come up about you are odd, clammy, probably Serbian, looks like the Travelocity gnome.” Making Marty not suck mostly means replacing the pugs, earlier maligned as “Chinese dogs,” with a chocolate lab and a golden retriever— “One is named Sergeant, the other Scout. They will wear bandanas.”—giving Marty’s wife Mitzi (Sarah Baker) a Katie Couric haircut, and schooling Marty in the dark art of political bullshit. One of the deep and disturbing pleasures of The Campaign is watching Marty and Cam sling platitudes at each other and realizing how close they are to the pablum and evasions of questions politicians regularly deploy on the trail. When Cam declares that “Filipino tilt-a-whirl operators are this nation’s backbone,” or explains that “My father worked with his hands, as head stylist for Vidal Sassoon,” it reveals how the forms of our political language gilt meaning onto substancelessness. And the movie gets a very funny sequence out of Marty accusing Cam of being a closet Communist because of a picture book he wrote about “Rainbowland” as a child that depicts a fictional country where everything is free. “I don’t want to live in Rainbowland,” hollers an angry constituent. “It’s a fictitious place!” Cam despairs. The picture book, of course, ends up at the top of the Amazon bestseller list.
The Campaign‘s feisty nastiness dissipates, however, in the final third of the movie, when its candidates try to free themselves from the influence of big money, spurred on by their children, wives, various hideous playground scars, and dogs. I understand the movie’s desire to end with a moral. But it’s weirdly naive, for a movie that can be so sharp and mean about the willingness of politicians to be bought to end up suggesting that we rely on their reawakened consciences rather than on legislation to keep big money out of politics. Though even when they do, the winning candidate’s promise to the residents of his district that “You will not be sold to China, or Brazil, or Nova Scotia, ro any other country…And I want to end Daylight Savings time. I hate it when it gets dark,” is a reminder that stupid free from corporate influence is, well, still stupid—and unlikely to be gone from our politics any time soon.