*** (out of 4)
DIRECTED BY Jay Roach
STARS Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis
TORCHING HIS OPPONENT: Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) delivers an incendiary speech about Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) in The Campaign. (Photo: Warner Bros.)
Merlin, Harry Potter and the Great and Powerful Oz — should we add Jay Roach's name to this list of legendary wizards? After all, genuine magic must have been at work behind the scenes of his latest directorial effort, a movie that bravely pairs two acquired, often bitter, tastes and yet goes down as smoothly as a White Russian. Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis can both be insufferable on their own, but placing them in the same movie? It sounds as potentially disastrous as that McCain-Palin ticket, but against the odds, The Campaign meets with modest success by playing beyond its established base (specifically, fans of the two comedians).
Roach, the helmer of the acclaimed HBO films Recount and Game Change, goes for broad laughs with his latest political piece, abetted in his goals by scripters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell (both of TV's Eastbound & Down). Set entirely in North Carolina but filmed entirely in Louisiana — because, Heaven knows, N.C. has no film industry to call its own, and we certainly don't need those Hollywood dollars — this casts Ferrell as Democratic congressman Cam Brady, a four-term incumbent who expects to waltz unopposed to a fifth term. But an adulterous fling has left him vulnerable, leading the powerful kingmakers the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) to back a challenger who could potentially win the district and thereby allow the Motches to build a Chinese sweat shop on U.S. soil. They choose Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), a naive and mincing nobody who's described by even his own dad (Brian Cox) as "one sorry fuck." The Republican Marty hopes to win so he can genuinely serve his constituents (yes, the movie is pure fiction), but it's an uphill battle considering Cam's experience on the campaign trail.
As the dapper yet duplicitous Cam Brady (modeled after John Edwards?), Ferrell is allowed one or two of his patented freak-out scenes but for the most part keeps his over-the-top shtick in check. Yet the real surprise is Galifianakis. An actor who has aggravated me to no end in all of his screen ventures to date (particularly Due Date and, dare I say it?, The Hangover and its sequel), he adopts the right delivery tone for Marty Huggins. Whereas Ferrell only gives us a political caricature (not his fault; the role's written that way), Galifianakis allows us to also see the man behind the public front: a sweet, soft-spoken simpleton with a penchant for loud, tacky shirts and calendars featuring animals dressed like humans (his favorite: the giraffe wearing high heels). Those of us who live in the South see this type at least on a weekly basis, which makes the actor's performance all the more endearing and/or annoying.
Despite its reluctance to swim in the dark-comedy waters explored by Tim Robbins' Bob Roberts or Warren Beatty's excellent Bulworth, The Campaign still manages to hit some topical targets. When Cam's decades-old elementary-school project, a picture book about a make-believe place called Rainbowland, is hilariously used by Marty as a way to discredit the congressman ("Sounds Commie to me!" charges Marty), an audience member at the debate starts screaming at Cam, "I won't live in Rainbowland and you can't make me!" — a nonsensical stance frighteningly similar to those seen by Tea Party chowderheads at their infamous rallies. And the burning desire by politicians to be photographed kissing a baby leads to an uproarious bit. Admittedly, it's ruined for those who have seen the film's trailer, but no worries: Another scene features a popular four-legged star, and it's even funnier.