A couple of minutes before the previews started last night, four white-haired citizens in matching red Tea Party t-shirts sat down in the row ahead. The one closest to me was wearing a gun. They laughed hardest at the “all politicians are stupid and venal” jokes, but seemed to enjoy the dick jokes and the slapstick just fine too. Not a peep out of them when Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow were on the screen.
Which gets to the primary failing of The Campaign — it pulls its punches. Not that I’d expect any different from a Will Ferrell movie. This one treats politics the way Blades of Glory treated ice skating and Talladega Nights treated racing: as a not-taken-seriously pretext for jackass behavior and increasingly ridiculous setpieces. There’s another, possibly more interesting movie buried within, the one Zach Galifianakis is starring in, gesturing feebly towards ideas about masculinity, community, and non-conformity (with Brian Cox doing his best Rip Torn); but other than a half-dozen sharp political jokes in the first half, neither movie has much to say about the actual ways political power is used to help or harm the polis, inventing a cartoonishly implausible worst-case scenario for the villains to cackle over, and mouthing unconvincing nostrums about getting big money out of politics in place of acknowledging serious ideological disagreement. The mid-credits epilogue even admits that its campaign-finance-reform platform has essentially been a MacGuffin in the wake of Citizens United, and invents a dumb criminal-conspiracy charge to nail the Motch brothers with.
I laughed a lot, especially in the first half, but I muttered to myself more than once toward the end, “this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.” It fails even in a politics-as-camp sense, since the shaggy plot doesn’t convince on either an emotional or a comic level; aside from Ferrell and Galifianakis, the characters are developed not by performance but by casting. Looking the part was apparently enough.
Which might function on its own as a satire of political theater — the bright, color-saturated visual style of the film certainly reads as a parody of campaign advertising — if there were a single idea that followed from a previous one, instead of just a string of meaningless jokes.