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Movie Review: THE CAMPAIGN Showcases Its Talented Leads and Little More

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The prevailing thought I had during my viewing of the Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakis comedy The Campaign was that more than anything, this movie needed to have a “Directed by Adam McKay” listing during the end credits.

For the uninitiated, Adam McKay is Ferrell’s longtime writing partner.  They met during their years on “Saturday Night Live,” where they created, among other projects, the Digital Short “The H is O” (if you haven’t seen it, head to YouTube with a quickness – it’s the funniest fusion of gay sex and Eagles front-man Glenn Frey you’ll ever see).  More to the point, McKay has become the architect behind Ferrell’s funniest big-screen ventures: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys.  These films work because McKay knows how to exploit Ferrell’s boundless comic energy without relying on it as a crutch; there is a world of difference between the inventive dynamo who headlines Anchorman and the lazily self-satisfied lead of Kicking and Screaming.

So it goes with The Campaign.  You can feel McKay’s influence in the setup (McKay and The Other Guys co-writer Chris Henchy developed the story, which focuses on two blithering man-children competing against one another for a coveted North Carolinian congressional seat), but the execution bears the fingerprints of Austin Powers in Goldmember and Dinner for Schmucks helmer Jay Roach.  As in those two features, there isn’t a comic beat Roach won’t double-and-triple underline, not a variation on a gross-out gag that he doesn’t find uproariously funny.  Roach isn’t all bad – he directed the first Austin Powers entry, which remains one of the two-or-three best studio comedies of the 1990s – but he’s the wrong fit for this material; his default is broad and shallow, and Ferrell and Galifianakis are too good to be burdened with trying to make the f-word in all its myriad iterations amusing, or with a seduction scene between Ferrell and Galifianakis’ plus-sized wife that goes on, and on, and on, until the last syllable of recorded time.

Even more damming: Roach’s decision to guide The Campaign into sentimental terrain more befitting Frank Capra than the Marx Brothers.  See, Roach is also responsible for the political docudramas Recount and Game Change, which weren’t funny but shared The Campaign‘s predilection for preachy speechifying.  It isn’t enough for Roach to highlight the absurdities of a political campaign; he has to condemn Big Government and Corporate Interests and Those Evil Lobbyists (personified by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd, two very funny men doing a punishingly unfunny riff on the Koch brothers).

Whatever your own personal thoughts are on these matters do not matter since Roach a) abstracts his political criticisms so far from reality that they lose all potential sting (he invents some nonsense about outsourcing from within the United States) and b) drains the life from the civics lessons.  Twenty minutes before the ending, Galifianakis undergoes an ethical transformation that Roach plays with a straight face – it’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with erection jokes.  To be fair, The Other Guys also lapsed into idealistic hectoring (the third act is a bald-faced takedown of the bankers who orchestrated the U.S. financial crisis), but McKay is savvy enough to name names and to increase the absurdity of the humor as he increases the moral takeaways.

What works about The Campaign begins and ends with its leading men.  Ferrell and Galifianakis have bested material worse than this (The Campaign ultimately isn’t bad, just mediocre), and despite the movie offering little to challenge their performing gifts, they still rise above it.  Ferrell is in his comfort zone – his Cam Brady has John Edwards’ voice (and sexual indiscretions) married to Ron Burgundy’s unentitled confidence – but that familiarity makes him no less amusing.  Ferrell deserves credit for nailing a line that ranks as one of 2012’s funniest; as a snake-venom-crazed Brady (don’t ask) rampages through the forest with a grotesquely swollen arm and a massive hard-on, he babbles “I need roughage,” and Ferrell so underplays the ridiculousness of the line in such an extreme context that its comic effect sneaks up and devastates you – days later, I still giggle when I think about it.

Galifianakis is funny and a little more: he’s the film’s actual main character, and he gets the time to imbue his Marty Huggins with surprising nuance and warmth.  Somehow, the extra sentiment works because it clashes pleasantly with the bizarre specifics of Huggins’ life (an affection for pugs that borders on the perverse; the way he spoils his malnourished sons; his absolute refusal to sleep in the same bed with his wife).

These two actors are so good you wish the movie supporting them deserved their efforts.  No matter: maybe one day, Adam McKay can direct his own buddy comedy starring the pair.  Be interesting to see how that might turn out…

Warner’s Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy offers the film in a fine-but-unspectacular HD transfer.  No one is ever going to watch The Campaign for its visual luster, but the Blu-ray image is still clean and free of defects.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is more aggressive, especially in the film’s many music montages.

Features are scant.  We get a short outtake reel, the marginally more engaging “Line-O-Rama” supplement (which shows Ferrell and Galifianakis tossing out alternate improvisations of dialogue), sixteen minutes of rightly cut deleted scenes, and a 95-minute-long Extended Cut that restores eleven minutes of footage cut from the theatrical version.

I have reservations about The Campaign, but the picture isn’t dreadful.  It made me laugh a few times, and it’s short enough so as to not overstay its welcome.  But it could have been much better, and for that, I take issue.

The Campaign streets on October 30th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.