After you watch a commercial or trailer for a new comedy, how often have you said "I'll bet they put all the funny bits in the trailer." Many times? I sure do. And, unfortunately, we are often correct.
Comedy is hard. What makes people laugh is often so subjective.
I made this comment after watching the trailer for "The Campaign", the new comedy starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galiafinakis. Given Ferrell's recent track record, I had no reason to think otherwise.
So, I was surprised by "The Campaign". It is pretty consistently funny and much better than you might expect.
Cam Brady (Ferrell), the unopposed, incumbent Democratic Congressman who represents a small district in North Carolina, is a born politician, willing to do and say anything for your vote. When a sex scandal looms, he doesn't give it much thought. He is extremely popular and doesn't really care. Even his wife seems to disregard the scandal; Cam is being considered for a Vice Presidential run and she can't wait to be Second Lady. But the Mocht Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Akroyd) are disappointed with the profits from their Chinese Toy factory; the child labor earns too much and then they have to pay to ship the product to the United States. So they want to have a significant portion of North Carolina rezoned so they can build a massive factory, import Chinese child labor and save on the shipping. But Cam won't sign on prompting them to find a candidate to run against the incumbent. They zero in on Marty Huggins (Galiafinakis), the son of a former North Carolina congressman, who runs a small tourist agency. They send Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) to run Marty's campaign and he immediately begins turning the new candidate's life upside down. Marty is initially resistant to the changes, but begins to catch on and prove to be a formidable candidate.
Directed by Jay Roach ("Austin Powers") and written by Shawn Harwell ("Eastbound and Down") and Chris Henchy ("Land of the Lost"), "The Campaign" may seem like a typical Will Ferrell film, but it has a lot more going for it. More laughs, more satire, more dark humor and it has something to say. All of this contributes to help make the film something worth watching.
Ferrell is clearly channeling his George W. impersonation. From the moment we first meet Cam, we realize he is a career politician, willing to say and do whatever it takes to maintain his power, his image, his place in Washington. As the Democratic incumbent, he sees his district as his personal tool box; he can play with anyone and anything he pleases. But Ferrell reveals more layers to Cam's character making him more interesting than the typical man-boy who refuses to grow up so often portrayed by the comedian. When Cam runs unopposed, Mitch (Jason Sudeikis, "Horrible Bosses"), his campaign manager, has to make a few calls to cover up his boss' frequent missteps.
And when Marty enters the picture, you can see the momentary indecision cross his face. What should he do? Is Marty an obstacle and if so, how can he overcome it? It doesn't take Cam very long to remember all of the tricks and trades of being a politician and he soon kicks into high gear, providing a little bit of 'shock and awe' for his wet-behind-the-ears opponent.
One of the best things about "The Campaign" is watching the change in Galiafinakis' character. Initially, he decides to run because he wants to help preserve his district. As soon as he agrees, the Mocht brothers send in Wattley, to mold and shape Marty into a candidate the American voter can get behind. Marty, his wife and two kids, don't understand why their life has to change but Cam instantly criticizes his two small Pugs, his "Chinese" dogs, and when this becomes a campaign issue, Tim changes the dogs and photographs the family with two all American dogs.
Galiafinakis imbues Marty with the perfect amount of doe-eyed innocence and a strange, affected accent, both of which make him instantly strange and unusual. But as he realizes what is necessary to win the campaign, a reality hits and his demeanor begins to change. Throughout, you can see the new and old Marty fighting for dominance, fighting to take over.
But Roach does a very interesting thing with the two leads. As you watch all of this going on in Marty's life, you realize Cam has already gone through all of this. Watching Marty gives us insight into Cam's life and character. It is like watching two different stages of the same character concurrently.
Dylan McDermott is a real surprise. As Tim Wattley, the professional campaign manager sent in by the Mocht brothers, he insinuates himself into Marty's life in a funny and unexpected way, popping up behind or near Marty and his wife whenever he feels like something is going off track. He also seems barely able to control his disappointment in Marty, a fact that barely seems to register with the virgin candidate.
Jason Sudeikis is the straight man to Ferrell's Cam and doesn't generate a lot of laughs.
Sarah Baker (TV's "Go On"), who plays Mitzi, Marty's wife is a standout. She experiences the same things her husband goes through, but gives us an idea of what the wife goes through. And she provides a good sounding board for all of Marty's strangeness.
Karen Maruyama is a scene stealer as Mrs. Yao, the housekeeper for Marty's dad. Every time she appears on screen, she says something that makes you laugh. Her character is pretty un-PC but the circumstances for her behavior are very memorable..
Dan Akroyd and John Lithgow play the Mocht brothers, greedy industrialists. The sequence of their tour through the Chinese toy factory is filled with some funny sight gags, which are, sadly, probably more truthful than they should be.
Jay Roach has created a funny comedy which derives a lot of laughs from biting comments about our current political landscape. There are a lot of laughs, the film contains a lot of dark humor and the performances are better than average.
However, the film falters in the last act because the filmmakers seem to feel it necessary to give some of the characters redeeming qualities. They have to do good, to become a good person, which detracts from the earlier dark humor, the political satire. It leaves the viewer feeling slightly wronged in a way.
But because there are so many laughs, so much humor, these few Hollywood-necessary moments at the end of the film can and should be overlooked.
"The Campaign" is a funny, biting reminder of some of the worst aspects of American politics. And it couldn't be more perfectly timed.