The most frequently asked question of my week has been: “Is The Campaign funny?”
Answer: Yes. Very.
And that’s when the conversation usually shifts to how gross and hot it is outside. There’s no follow-up question like, “Is it relevant satire?” And only other film critics ask questions containing critic-words like “incisive” or “facile,” so that’s not even on the table.
Yes, it’s funny. And it’s also laser surgery where all molecular strands of hot-button difference between the two major political parties are neatly pre-removed, partially for your viewing comfort, partially as camouflage. For the record, Will Ferrell plays the Democratic candidate and Zach Galifianakis the Republican. But it doesn’t really matter. Because Kelsey Grammar, Scott Baio and Patricia Heaton notwithstanding, Hollywood is overwhelmingly liberal and great at two major political moves: ruining Los Angeles traffic every time President Obama comes to my city to fund-raise at George Clooney’s house, and knowing how to tweak a product into apolitical, mass-market friendliness. The less you commit publicly, the more likeable you are to people who aren’t paying much attention.
What makes that a neat little trick in this instance is that it’s also the point of the movie. Every genuinely serious issue woven into the script is one that most reasonable people could agree on, provided they aren’t billionaires with a stake in global power -- razor-wire-covered footballs like campaign finance, corporate ownership of politicians or the shipping of jobs to other countries. And every time one of those issues is floated before the film’s dueling candidates, they crush it under the wheels of monster truck know-nothingness and fixate on sex tapes and other birth certificate-level controversies instead. So it’s smarter than it presents. Think Dumb and Dumber hijacking Bob Roberts.
In the past, Ferrell has worn smarminess and bloated ego as his comic go-to traits, making sawdust out of George W. Bush’s presidency in the process, and Galifianakis has machete-hacked his own path through the culture as a next-generation version of Andy Kaufman-style disorientation. You get healthy doses of both here, as the two lock horns in an election struggle for outcomes even they don’t understand.
Ferrell’s incumbent is what you expect from him: cynical, drunk, entitled and horny, running to win for winning’s sake. Galifianakis, a sweetly innocent hometown booster, has no real opinions but finds himself installed as a Republican toy. Meanwhile, his handlers – two Koch-inspired industrialist brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) with nothing but profits on their mind – have no idea to what kind of otherworldly square peg they’ve hitched their wagon.
Audiences, too. In spite of his Hangover-fueled mega-star status, you can still feel ticket-buyers trying to get a good grasp on Galifianakis’s center of gravity. He’s studied the most uncomfortable aspects of highly specific sorts of American men, the kind who grew up in private obsessive worlds of their own making and never picked up any social cues on public behavior. This time around it’s a variation on a type he’s played before, a naïve, effeminate heterosexual in sweater vests and pleated jeans who is, as his father (Brian Cox) points out, “…like Richard Simmons crapped out a Hobbit.”
As a package deal, it strikes a reasonable balance of pointed and absurd. It could be spikier. A lot spikier. And meaner, like HBO’s caustic Veep. But wide release films usually tiptoe through that garden. Too much money at stake. So when it refuses to refuse the corner it paints itself into, the “be nice and eventually your enemies will bow down before you” lie that movies like to sell, you can just blame Hollywood. And politics. Both.