There’s always been something insidious about the MPAA ratings system. It has allowed filmmakers to more directly label films as if they were products off the supermarket shelf — “The Dark Knight Rises” is going to be PG-13, because it’s about a character kids wear on their jammies. “American Pie” is going to be R-rated, because they’re going to talk about sex a whole lot. But sometimes, you wonder if the PG-13 and lower ratings are designed to rescue filmmakers from themselves, forcing them to find creative ways to tell certain stories without the benefits of explicit content. Unfortunately, that train of thought is absent from “The Campaign,” a proudly vulgar idiot festival that wears its sophomoric R-rating on its sleeve, infusing a ripe satirical comedic idea with nonsensical foul content in lieu of character, story and comedic resonance.
Not that “The Campaign” is especially disgusting or offensive — as far as featuring “inappropriate” content, it falls behind generic Restricted fare like “Due Date,” with which it shares a star in Zach Galifianakis. The once-alternative stand-up comedian here actually recycles quite a bit from “Due Date,” porting over his character’s peculiar effeminate heterosexuality, love of dogs, and complete social ineptitude from that box-office hit. His Marty Huggins is a local tour guide in North Carolina, distanced from his wealthy father (Brian Cox, slumming) and eking out a perfectly normal suburban existence with his wife and two pervert kids who fire up some (likely improv’d) salty language at the dinner table in their only significant scene, which itself feels like a trope borrowed specifically from “Talladega Nights,” written and directed by this film’s producer Adam McKay.
Which brings us to Will Ferrell, the Goliath of this story, as Cam Brady, a perfectly-coiffed Congressman running unopposed for re-election despite generally being a foul-mouthed boor with no interests outside of drinking heavily and gallivanting with mistresses. When his tomcatting is exposed by a filthy message popping up on a family’s answering machine, it reveals a weakness in his armor. One of the many in-jokes about the people of North Carolina (“The Campaign” was filmed on location) is that Brady has had four straight terms as a Democrat without anyone noticing his disgusting idiocy and Ferrell-ian delusions of grandeur. It reveals a lot about Ferrell as a performer, as shades of his George W. Bush overlap with Cam Brady, in that he largely considers most politicians to be complete boobs, forever well-loved by their constituents.
As Brady’s approval numbers drop, billionaire Washington lobbyists Glen and Wade Motch (John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd) fret that he’ll become too much of a joke to sponsor their plans to collaborate with China in building Chinese-run factories in North Carolina’s fourteenth district. The Motchs, clearly based on disgusting hard-right mover-shakers the Kochs, are pushing cheap labor stateside as a way to line their pockets. But their self-proclaimed “insourcing” isn’t an alien concept to lobbyists who pitch the same sorts of ideas every day in Washington, so this slight exaggeration of actual government activity doesn’t have either a punchline or a real-world grounding, particularly since Lithgow and Ackroyd are legendary hams, and the film largely treats every relationship in the film as a sham based on opportunism. Not only does this approach distance the material from a single actual laugh, but it comes across as nastily xenophobic.
The Motchs decide to hitch their wagon to the fanny-pack-wearing (from “The Hangover”!) Marty, turning his life into a media circus. Into the picture walks the Terminator-like Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), who forces Marty to sit and watch Burt Reynolds movies to learn masculine behavior, and demands his dowdy wife get a haircut to resemble Katie Couric, among other remodeling tasks. He also tries to get rid of Marty’s two pugs, though they just won’t go away — after decades of helming big blockbuster comedy movies like “Meet The Parents” and “Austin Powers,” Jay Roach still thinks like a second-unit director on an episode of “Blossom,” and dog reaction shots are forever hilarious. Somehow, these cosmetic changes turn Huggins into a genuine Republican candidate who can match Brady slogan for slogan, hyperbole for hyperbole.
Neither candidate stands for anything, of course. That would make this a bipartisan film, and Hollywood cannot have that. Instead they sling mud at each other: Cam accuses Marty of being a member of the Taliban (ha… ha), and Huggins fires back by chastising Cam for not knowing Christian prayers. It’s a contest of let-the-best-rat-win, with Big Business being the only real boogeyman lying in the distance. There’s no comment on the apathy of voters fully aware of how the strings are pulled. “The Campaign”’s biting satire seems like it belongs in 1995, when we didn’t have blogs, YouTube, or twenty four hour news channels, and the revelation that a congressman is in someone’s cash-lined pocket could still be shocking.
With barely any material to fill a feature-length film, “The Campaign” leans heavily on that R-rating, with heavy sexual innuendo, fired-off foul language and scatological gags. Not overwhelming in and of itself, this material seems to have been subbed as big laugh-makers in place of any opportunities for commentary. But take the politics out of “The Campaign” and it’s not even entertaining on a base level. Jason Sudeikis shows up as Cam’s top political advisor, though he plays it mostly straight, actually going for drama when he’s repulsed by Cam’s attack ads, an excuse to remove a sensible character from the narrative. Brian Cox acts as the audience’s mouthpiece in chastising Marty as a sub-literate (as if we need guidance in that matter), while Katherine LaNasa gives Cam’s power-hungry wife a superbitch sheen that Kathryn Hahn could probably fart out on a bad day.
It’s especially disappointing coming from Ferrell, a (premature?) winner of the Mark Twain Prize for Humor, since it cements that the actor/humorist is only worth watching when under the guidance of frequent collaborator Adam McKay as a writer and/or director. Together, they’ve produced four comedies that savagely blend absurdity with the lie of American exceptionalism. “Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy,” “Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby,” “Step Brothers” and “The Other Guys” could handily stand up against the four best films of any popular comedian with their funhouse mirror approach towards American values and contemporary masculinity. But without McKay’s guiding hand, Ferrell’s been rudderless, even in quintessentially Ferrell-ian projects like “Semi-Pro,” a bleak ensemble piece that also leaned heavily on its R-rating without an interesting story. Even with a seasoned pro like Jay Roach behind the camera, somehow “The Campaign” is insidiously stupid, a laugh-free water balloon lazily tossed at the institution of politics, and one that makes “Semi-Pro” look like a lost Robert Altman film. [F]