The agenda of director Jay Roach’s new movie is not to mine the finer nuances of American electoral procedures. This might come as a shock or a relief, depending whether you go into “The Campaign” remembering Roach as the politically-minded maker of HBO’s “Recount” and “Game Change” or you only know him from films about Fockers. Now, in a spirit of meeting halfway, his agenda is broad bipartisan spoofery.
In “The Campaign,” Will Ferrell plays an entrenched North Carolina congressman challenged by an unlikely opponent in the form of Zach Galifianakis. Unlikeliness, of course, used to be the Galifianakis touch; here it’s a dull nudge, or whatever you want to call a weary reprise of the prissy oaf he played in “Due Date.” Meanwhile Ferrell looks to have hauled out his old George W. Bush impression and, sensing the staleness, hosed it off with a splash of randy John Edwards. The promise being made is one of bloodless, been-there farce. Can it count on your vote?
With strings pulled by callous sibling super-funders modeled on the Koch brothers and played by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd, the candidates’ contest escalates from gaffe-intensive buffoonery to the brinksmanship of outrageously dirty mud-slinging. Among a clutter of real pundits tediously playing themselves, Jason Sudeikis and Dylan McDermott show up as rival campaign managers, respectively servile and shark-like. Before long it’s a slog, quite like a real campaign at least in that sense but otherwise too sketchy a cartoon and too soft a satire, full of cheap shots at easy targets and many scattered bits of uninspired vulgarity. (Inspired vulgarity would be fine.) There is something to be said for the burlesque possibilities of sex-tape as (positive!) campaign-ad, and punching babies instead of kissing them, but not by this movie.
Writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell try to repurpose the usual election-run-up cliches as punchlines but can’t fully forsake their pieties; Roach and his complacent stars take that cue to churn out a film whose sentimental-fizzle ending, its “heart,” seems as much of a cynical calculation as the politically corrosive corporate profiteering it limply sends up. Ultimately this sort of thing seems best fallen into on cable, and eventually channel-surfed away from. Richer parodies remain available on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” as does the parody that writes itself, regularly, in current events.
Speaking of which, someone somewhere (in America) probably will think the timing of “The Campaign”’s release is politically motivated. Although scarcely threatening, or at all issue-driven in any real way, it does seem to have been shoved into the expected doldrums of the August dumping-ground, between peak summer blockbusters and autumn’s onset of prestige pictures. At best it offers a vacation of sorts, some recuperative last laffs before the grim home stretch of real-life campaigning carries us into November. And if the it’s-all-a-dumb-joke mindset feels neither constructive nor cathartic, it does have the dubious virtue of staying forever unserious.