Thursday, August 9, 2012

Politics as Usual: THE CAMPAIGN

Though Warner Brothers is marketing The Campaign as a big dumb R-rated summer comedy, that’s a little deceptive. What they have here is a big smart R-rated summer comedy. It’s a film that goes after our current crazy campaign climate with a desire to make it seem even more ridiculous than it is. That’s no small task, but with Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, two men completely unafraid to look utterly buffoonish and deranged, this is a movie that starts heightened and claws its way up over the top, emerging very filthy and very funny in the process. This isn’t just some safe potshots at the way we in the United States watch our campaigns roll out, unravel and descend into mudslinging and trivial nastiness. Rather than growing apolitical, this film is deeply cynical and mad as hell about it.

The film starts with impeccably coiffed North Carolinian Democratic congressional candidate, Cam Brady (Ferrell), making a misguided phone call to what he assumed was his mistress’s voicemail. It’s a mistake that reveals his extramarital activities to the general public and delivers a wounding blow to his poll numbers. Seeing the distress from a now-troubled campaign, the billionaire Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) decide to call up one of their billionaire buddies (Brian Cox) to see if his weirdo son would like to run against Brady on the Republican ticket. They agree to put up the campaign funds and keep the Super PACs flowing if the generally doltish, but well meaning, Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) gets in the race. He’s a man who speaks in a hilarious airy southern drawl, but hey, he has the appearance of malleability.

Writers Chris Henchy, Shawn Harwell, and Adam McKay are smart to make the film less about ideologies and more about greed. The billionaires funding the increasingly nasty campaign aren’t doing so out of deep devotion to any specific cause. They’re only throwing their weight around to get the best business deals from their political pawns. As for Brady and Huggins, they don’t seem to have much conviction beyond a general appreciation for the Constitution and Jesus. (One of the funniest scenes finds one of them failing spectacularly to recite the Lord’s Prayer extemporaneously.) The race grows personal, but not out of any general animosity. They went to school together; they may even agree on a great many of the issues. They’re running for the recognition and the power. The more they lash out at each other, the more scared they are. The campaign is hardly about the people. It’s all about access to the proverbial smoke-filled backrooms and the lengths people will go to stay there. Oh, and it’s funny, too. At best, the movie provokes the kind of cathartic laughter that fills the lungs and pulls at the sides of the face with an almost painful intensity.

Jay Roach lets the campaign play out in an escalating drumbeat countdown to Election Day. He’s the director behind the broad comedy of Austin Powers and Meet the Parents, but his most recent film was HBO’s Game Change, about John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and his unpredictable running mate Sarah Palin. The Campaign plays like the blatantly comedic flip side to that true joke. Exaggerating our current political climate, by turns vitriolic and blatantly nonsensical, has to be a hugely difficult prospect. What helps is the way this film lets us understand why the characters act so crazed. Brady’s slickness is nothing more than professional insincerity. Huggins’s unpreparedness is nothing more than a desire to please his father and the moneymen. They’re both terrified that they won’t get what they want. Even though both men, even behind closed doors, say that they want to do what’s best for their fellow citizens, it’s hard to see the help they claim to provide.

It’s all too easy to imagine a campaign actually drawing tenuous links between terrorism and facial hair or patriotism and choice of pet dog. The professional minds behind the campaigns (Jason Sudeikis and Dylan McDermott) aggressively push the candidates into blandly contradictory stances on whatever they feel will get their candidate the most votes. The Brady and Huggins families, wives and kids, are victims of relentless badgering from the public and from within the campaign itself. The election gets so ugly and personal that one debate is reduced to one man demanding an explanation for a story the other wrote in grade school. Much of this material hits sore nerves of our current political mood, like a feature-length Daily Show thought experiment. So committed to their roles, Farrell and Galifianakis bring a wild-eyed determination and loopy believability to their ridiculous characters. No one, not the candidates, not supporters, not even voters, ends up looking good in this satire.

Some of the comedic moments in the film are just crude or blatantly absurd and exaggerated. A surprising seduction, a punch to a very innocent face, a hunting “accident”, and a car crashing into an unexpected obstacle are all good examples of moments that jump confidently over the top. Not all of these land, but they’re a good break from the material that hits too close to home. The candidates prank each other in cruel or weird ways, badger each other on baseless grounds, slap at each other, embarrass each other, and strike back in ways that turn the political uncomfortably personal. Though occasionally too on-the-nose, The Campaign grinds forward, growing uglier behind plastic smiles and bright, cheerful cinematography. Only the ending, which splits the difference between cynical and hopeful, offers a safe, satisfying out to the relentlessness of selfish, childish politics. In real life, we can only hope for such hope.

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