Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Like: The Campaign

Like many of you, I too come from a family who likes to dig mirthfully (or bitterly, depending on how you look at it) into some serious politics upon gathering. There hasn't been a Thanksgiving or birthday party in the last fifteen years where one of my relatives hasn't called for an immediate ousting of a president.  Like a gang of talking head pundits, they throw around exaggerated slams.  Many an individual has been a fascist, a socialist, an American terrorist out to bankrupt the country and throw us deeper into an already deep recession.  Lately, certain relatives have been growing increasingly interested in throwing around 'facts' and 'headlines' picked up from the major news networks (which, let's face it, are all slanted towards ratings) that bring the dirty, twisted, warped perception game of politics into the living room in ways that constantly shock the hell out of me.  One aunt becomes a flame-haired Bill O'Reilly, another a comparatively subtle Anderson Cooper.  The networks feed into it, but the politicians sling a fair amount of hypocritical mud themselves.  Both parties are equally guilty of this, in my opinion, and sometimes it takes a film as flat out idiotic as The Campaign to innocuously deliver what HBO's The Newsroom's polarizing methods cannot: modern government is FUBAR, the tabloid method is winning, and if you're not yet guilty of the thing you're pointing fingers about, it's only a matter of time before you will be.    
In its strongest moments, The Campaign is fairly repugnant.  There's absolutely nothing subtle about the comedy here, and while the goal of the film offers a bit of satire, it lands mostly on the side of farce.  The jokes are broad sweeping master strokes of the profane.  There's a point to be made, but Dr. Strangelove it ain't.  The Campaign is playing with the election season feeding frenzy to give us a face-off between despicable democratic scandal-monger Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) and clueless conservative family man Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis).  Huggins is the outcast son of a Southern kingpin, reviled by his family seemingly because he's an effeminate, good-natured human being with a seemingly unbreakable optimism.  Marty's given the chance to make something of himself in the eyes of his father when the evil Motch Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) decide to pluck him from obscurity and create a senatorial candidate stupid enough to blindly back their shady business ventures.  What follows is a down and dirty campaign as media hungry narcissist Brady finds himself cornered by the earnestly oblivious Huggins.  You can link up the pieces to find a bit of connection to the real-life political landscape, but past the generalized synopsis, the race here is amplified to absurd, ham-fisted extremes that work overtime to pummel you with the grotesque, awful possibilities for tabloid-brand politics.  Sex tapes?  Check.  Adultery? Check.  Bad parenting? Check. Baby punching?  Um...yeah, that happens.  It's a clearly fictitious world built on semi-probable fall of Rome concepts of modern America.  In a particularly apt scene a campaign ad is pitched at Brady in which centerfold style shots of his mistress are slowly luxuriated over until the commercial lands its "can you really blame him?" pitch.  It works.
Of course, the absurdity is also the downfall of The Campaign.  Over a relatively short run-time, the film devotes itself to a one-upmanship that shoots for bigger and badder one-liners instead of stopping to actually spend time making a joke that feels culturally relevant or game-changing.  It's an equal opportunity offender that posits, in part, that the American people are the bigger idiots for ever subscribing to any of these morons in the first place.  Politics here is all corrupt.  Here the democrats are savvy manipulators and the republicans are well-meaning, rather backwards puppets.  The portrait doesn't seem that far off, to me (I try to stay firmly in the demilitarized zone), but centering the story in a single congressional district instead of in the presidential race, for example, limits its impact...as does giving the film a fairly happy, resolved conclusion. There are a strong statements The Campaign could have gone for.  It could have hopped onto that nuke and rode it into the credits to make its fatalistic point.  Instead, its sharp corners have been sanded down and rounded out into gut-punch jokes and strings of scenarios.  Ultimately, while The Campaign is funny enough for a diversion, it doesn't take the time to fully work out its own potential.  See it for the laughs, but don't expect anything more than Talladaga Nights

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