Jay Roach is no stranger to political material — he directed HBO’s Game Change, about the presidential run of John McCain and Sarah Palin, and Recount, which deconstructed the controversy after the 2000 presidential election — but his new film has much more in common with his goofy Austin Powers movies. Still, though it’s crude and juvenile in ways that makes you vaguely ashamed at laughing so much, The Campaign is versatile enough to sneak in a good shot or two at the American political system.
Mostly, though, it’s just good old-fashioned, silly, crass American fun. The movie follows the exploits of womanizing Democratic incumbent Cam Brady (Will Ferrell), who feels he’s entitled to represent his small North Carolina district in Congress because he has run unopposed for so long, and his Republican challenger Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a small-town tour guide encouraged to run by a couple of greedy businessmen, the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), who are already drooling over the idea of controlling him. Don’t worry: The Campaign does not really take sides in terms of party so much as suggest that the entire system of buying influence is corrupt and that many voters are too easily swayed by words like “America” and “patriotism” and “Jesus,” stances most viewers can probably agree on without too much bickering.
At first the vaguely effeminate Marty — he has pugs, which are simply not Real American Dogs like Labs! — seems destined to be crushed by the Brady political machine, which mostly consists of the campaign manager (Jason Sudeikis) trying to talk the egotistical Brady out of his hare-brained ideas. But then the Motch brothers hire a ruthless campaign manager (Dylan McDermott) to help good-guy Marty, and suddenly Marty is able to fight back. The only problem is, he’s losing his family and his soul in the process.
Ferrell and Galifianakis work well together, and they’re hilarious. Roach wisely keeps the running time close to an hour and a half — please, Judd Apatow and acolytes, take note — so you’re never waiting impatiently for the next gag (looking at you, The Watch.) Most of the humor is sophomoric and rude, involving sleazy sex tapes or such witty insults as “your face looks like a butt,” but bits and pieces are pure comic genius. The Motch brothers want to institute “insourcing,” which brings wretched Chinese factories and their poorly paid workers to the United States to save on shipping costs. The baby-slapping scene, shown in the trailer every 10 minutes on TV this past week, is still funny in context and sets up one of the most inspired jokes of the year in the process. If you want to laugh this weekend, vote for The Campaign.
Cast: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Dylan McDermott.
Director: Jay Roach.
Screenwriters: Chris Henchy, Shawn Harwell.
Producers: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Adam McKay, Jay Roach.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 97 minutes. Crude sexual content, language, brief nudity. Opens Friday Aug. 10 at area theaters.