by George Sax
This year’s national elections are widely said to be among the most important in the last century. They’re also maddeningly uninformative and mindnumbingly bombastic, which has also been widely remarked on. Par for the course? Yeah, but the alarming disparity between the historic moment and the tedious irrelevance of the campaigns is particularly depressing.
So voters, the citizenry, deserve some relief from the infliction, the affliction, of this election cycle on them. Some mirthful entertainment from Hollywood, perchance, to briefly divert us from what the political elite is perpetrating? Fat chance! Will Ferrell and Jay Roach’s new ostensibly political comedy, The Campaign, comes not to fill the breach but to widen it. The Campaign isn’t nearly as amusing as one of Barack Obama’s hopelessly unconvincing forays into a neighborhood tavern to rub elbows with and show his sympathetic identification with the hoi polloi. Or Mitt Romney’s assertions of expertise in job creation. The Campaign is a lot more scatologically and sexually explicit than the presidential and congressional campaigns, and maybe you’ll settle for that.
The movie did elicit some tittering and giggling, and some occasional guffaws at the preview I attended. At least some of the audience acted like the rapidly descending taste and level of invention on the screen held some amusement, although sometimes I wondered if they weren’t just reacting reflexively as people are trained to do when someone tells a dirty joke. And they were rather subdued in a sequence where Ferrell’s congressional candidate goes apeshit and seduces his opponent’s primly repressed wife, then buys TV time to show the porny video of it.
The Campaign is a licentiously dreary, careless aggregation of attempts at a provocation. Movies as gross-outs is scarcely startling in the post-American Pie, après Apatow show business world. Director Roach and company don’t make effort to connect their wearying sexual, anatomic, and potty-mouthed japery to any political context. Ferrell is a perennially unopposed congressman from small-town North Carolina who is unexpectedly confronted with an out-of-nowhere candidate, one Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis). A town joke, a mincingly prissy little man, he’s been recruited by two rapacious capitalist brothers (Dan Akroyd and John Lithgow) as frontman for their plan to drop a Chinese factory (and Chinese workers) into the candidates’ little town.
None of this makes even a lick of narrative sense. Why not just co-opt the horndog airhead incumbent? Why must Marty be such a putzy little fruitfly when he’s not really gay? The answer is that these are just pretexts on which to hang the movie’s no-wit grungy gags. None of it is really directed at our politics or economy, even good-naturedly.
For Ferrell, who is also a producer, this is just another, somewhat more vulgar number in a line of broad-beam comedies. (Before these movies, he showed his comic skills in the presidential impersonations he used to do on SNL.) Galifianakis plays his part as if he’s aping Jack Black’s performance in the recent black comedy Bernie, although the results can hardly be mostly his fault.
Roach is an indifferent director and the movie is something of a mess. The gag timing is slack, and so is the editing. The photography is flat.
Brit journalist and historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft observed the other day that American journalism lacked the punch and pointedness of two recently deceased United Kingdom transplants in the US, Christopher Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn. America also doesn’t have a tradition of political humor in our movies and television. Even Lasse Hallström’s recent romantic comedy Salmon Fishing in the Yemen had an adroit sendup, of the British prime minister’s office.
Maybe our noisy dismally digressive politics is related to our failure to produced mature mass-market political spoofs.
Watch the trailer for The Campaign
Issue Navigation> Issue Index > v11n32 (Week of Thursday, August 9) > Film Reviews > The Campaign
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