To be honest, I laughed quite a bit during "The Campaign," the new Will Ferrell-Zach Galifianakis comedy, and rightfully so: some of it is tremendously funny. (A few of the best bits have been shown in television ads for the movie, and a few of them -- well -- simply can't be.) Unfortunately, this is one of those movies that feels like two or three scripts were tossed into the Story Blend-O-Matic, fingers crossed that they'd all come together. Several of the performances are good -- one is even flat-out great -- but the movie as a whole just doesn't gel.
Ferrell plays Cam Brady, an incumbent North Carolina Democrat seeking his fifth term in Congress, and running unopposed, at least at first. Brady's a smooth-talker with a $500 haircut and a 10-cent head, especially when an attractive female crosses his view. After a sexually graphic phone message intended for his mistress ends up on the wrong answering machine ("Who has an answering machine these days?" an outraged Brady asks rhetorically during a press conference-slash-spin session), the Congressman's district suddenly looks ripe for the plucking in the eyes of the wealthy and powerful Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), a pair of kingmakers -- and king-breakers.
The duo has secretly been purchasing land in the district, including dormant factories, with dastardly plans to sell all of the property to a Chinese company that will import all of its own workers from that country ("Insourcing," a promotional video calls it), paying them the same pitiful wages and providing the same horrible working conditions the employees were already experiencing. They just need a puppet at hand to give them the "yes" vote they'll need to get the project passed through Congress.
Enter the guileless and perpetually chipper local tourism board leader Marty Huggins, played by Galifianakis. Huggins, a married man with a pair of boys and a pair of pugs under his cozy roof, also happens to be the son of a wealthy former power player (Brian Cox), and a man who has hungered for his father's approval for years. He accepts the offer to run on the Republican ticket against Brady, who immediately seizes upon the chance to play dirty against his meek opponent.
The Motches won't let that stand, however, and bring in a fixer to run Huggins' campaign -- the shadowy, constantly clad-in-black Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott, in a truly outstanding comic performance). Wattley proceeds to reshape Huggins into a surprisingly skillful -- and even vicious -- political beast, while Huggins' wife, Mitzi (Sarah Baker), begins to wonder where the kind and gentle soul she married went.
The heated battle of tit-for-tat between the two men comes to a head when the Huggins campaign produces an ad showing him being warm and fatherly to Brady's son. Brady retaliates by seducing Mitzi, recording the transgression on his cell phone, and releasing it as a campaign ad.
Between the potential collapse of his marriage and the fact that he can't stomach the Motch brothers' plans for his district, Huggins essentially surrenders, and the Motches put their muscle behind Brady, who's just happy to be on top again. But Huggins -- thanks to a last-minute pep talk from a contrite Mitzi -- musters one last effort, airing a commercial where he tells his district the truth about himself, leading to an election result that I won't spoil here (although I will say it's a bit of a reach).
If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, well, that's because it is -- "The Campaign" is built on the same kind of story structure that filmmakers like Frank Capra successfully utilized for years. (I do kind of doubt that Capra would have had a scene where one of his male leads is caught having sex in a portable toilet on a construction site, but who knows....) But, in an attempt to put their own adult-humored, politically-incorrect spin on that structure, the makers of the movie -- screenwriters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell, along with director Jay Roach -- failed to lock down what kind of movie this was supposed to be.
On one hand, "The Campaign" wants to be a wacky, raunchy, R-rated comic romp with over-the-top characters and situations. On the other, it wants to be a satiric indictment of American politics, targeting both the politicians and powerful people who line up to support them. And then, as if that's not enough splitting of the personality, there's a strange and gooey sentimentality that creeps in from time to time, and while that sort of thing can kill pretty much any movie's momentum, it's a particularly lethal anti-matter when it comes to either a goofy comedy or a sharp satire. (And when a movie has no sense of itself, like here, it's doubly dangerous.) In the end, even though there's some really funny material and performances, "The Campaign" ends up being a disappointing mish-mash. Two stars (out of four).
Content advisory: As I've mentioned (and as you might have already guessed), "The Campaign" is rated R for crude sexual content, language and brief nudity. Although both of the lead actors, particularly Ferrell, are popular with younger audiences, parents should heed the rating -- unless they have been in desperate need of about six weeks' worth of squirm-inducing questions they likely will not be prepared to answer, and think that letting their kids see this is really the best way to go about it.