"THE CAMPAIGN" — ★★1/2 — Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Aykroyd, Karen Maruyama; R (crude sexual content, language and brief nudity); in general release
We're used to politicians talking out of both sides of their mouths. "The Campaign" is a political comedy that attempts that feat.
It's a rude and crude farce that takes broad swipes at the political system and the people who manipulate it. It's not subtle about attacking those alleged election-buying billionaires the Koch brothers (called the Motch brothers here). The campaigners themselves are basically puppets — one a crass, lazy Democrat given to giving in to his basest instincts, the other a startlingly ill-informed Republican whose idealism gives way to a cynical makeover to make him more presentable to the North Carolina voters he's appealing to.
And the voters themselves are ranting, red-faced rubes who can't stop fulminating long enough to realize that calling the other guy's pug dogs "communists" is about the silliest thing ever.
But this R-rated comedy, directed by Jay Roach, tries to have it both ways. It straddles the "fair and balanced" fence, making the naive, effeminate Republican (Zach Galifianakis) an idealist backed by the evil Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, doing a "Trading Places"-evil-rich-siblings thing) and the Democrat (Will Ferrell) a boozy, womanizing cynic whose idealism evaporated in high school.
The worst thing about the Republican is his stupidity. Galifianakis makes Marty Huggins, a Hammond, N.C., tour guide who is nothing but a disappointment to his racist, vile dad (Brian Cox), likable daft. The plump, prancing Galifianakis makes Marty the sort of guy you'd love to take to Chick-fil-A. Or not. The film's earliest comic shock is when we see he has an equally plump wife and kids.
Ferrell is ferociously, hilariously unlikable as Cam Brady, the four-term incumbent. Whatever his merits as a congressman, the very idea that he has to run for re-election, and against this idiot to boot, makes him nuts, leading to one gaffe after another.
Then these two would-be good ol' boys get into the drawlin' trash talk: "What's the difference between your mama and a washin' machine?"
Marty, guided by a nasty political infighter (Dylan McDermott), has a killer campaign slogan to take him to Washington. "Bring your brooms," he says of D.C. "Because it's a MESS."
Director Roach throws filthy-mouthed kids, sister-marrying "born again" Christians, sex in port-a-johns and wardrobe malfunctions at us. But movies that step on that third rail of filmgoer appeal — politics — always pull their punches.
Most of the laughs come from the shocks, which can be shocking. And the actors are game. Ferrell is in full "Anchor Man"-meets-"Ricky Bobby" mode here, loud, abrasive, big-haired and outrageous. And Galifianakis refines the mincing ditzes he's made his shtick. But steering clear of anything that might turn off some potential ticket-buyers makes the film feel as focus-grouped and watered-down as the very campaigns it aims to spoof.
"Campaign" is rated R for crude sexual content, language and brief nudity; running time: 90 minutes.