Talk about your undecided voters. The new Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakis vehicle "The Campaign" can't make up its mind about dumb vs. smart; crass vs. crass with a conscience; or cheap caricature vs. satire stoked by a sincere call to action.
Comedies with something to say often go about saying it a dozen different ways, but this intended skewering of lowball politics and America's corrosive cynicism regarding our elected officials, and how they got that way, struggles to film a cheap sight gag to decent effect.
The baby-punching joke, for instance. It’s in the trailer. The North Carolina congressional rivals played by Ferrell (the Democrat, the horndog) and Galifianakis (the sweet-natured Republican son of a venal party operative) spy a mother holding an infant at a campaign event. They sprint toward the lil' photo op, both men determined to be first to kiss the baby. Somehow Ferrell ends up clocking it in the face.
The slow-mo effects don’t make the gag funny. They make it eerie, and director Jay Roach — whose HBO Florida 2000 docudrama, "Recount," was sharp enough to give me hope for "The Campaign" — holds none of the shots for the right length of time. Is the idea of the bit amusing? Potentially, in a sadistic way, yes. The execution is just lame.
Because "The Campaign" tries to say something about truth vs. hogwash in election season, it's doubly sad the efforts of screenwriters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell come to so little. A four-term congressman going for five, Ferrell's Cam Brady is a man with John Edwards' expensively maintained hair and Bill Clinton's predilection for sexual risk. Scandal rocks his campaign, and his enemies see an opening. Billionaire conservatives the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd, playing puppeteers based on the real-life Koch brothers) enlist a rival candidate, the simpy offspring of a longtime backroom power broker (Brian Cox).
Galifianakis plays the simp, Marty Huggins. The actor may have his narrow skill-set, and plenty of fans, but he continues to be both too much and not enough to anchor, or even co-anchor, a big comedy. (The public disagrees with me.) Most of the material runs to the witlessly foul-mouthed, as when the two candidates, prior to a debate, engage in sotto voce trash talk. I laughed a few times: There’s a scene in which Huggins, looking for a bump in the polls, walks up to Brady and shoots him in the leg with a hunting rifle, and doesn’t even try to make it look like a Dick Cheney accident.
Stray, wry details help, such as Brady’s tried-and-true campaign catch-phrase: "America. Jesus. Freedom." That's one level of observational acumen; it's quite another when Brady seduces Huggins' wife and puts the resulting sex tape on air as a smear job.
In the role of Brady's campaign manager, Jason Sudeikis is meant to be the audience surrogate, complicit but increasingly appalled by the depths to which his man will sink. The movie doesn't leave you with the sort of sour, sinking feeling imparted by, say, "That’s My Boy," or the second "Hangover" film. But it's weak and witlessly crude. And who knows what tone these guys were even going for half the time? And is it too late to recast the Huggins part?
'The Campaign' -- 1 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for crude sexual content, language and brief nudity)
Running time: 1:37