Director Jay Roach’s “Game Change,” which aired on HBO earlier this year, ranks among the most blockheaded political movies ever made. Without so much as smirking, Roach and writer Danny Strong ask the viewer to accept the impossible proposition that Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was so ill-informed when she joined the McCain campaign that her handlers had to instruct her that the Queen did not rule England and Sadaam Hussein did not mastermind 9/11. “Game Change” was made solely for the purpose of smearing Palin so that left-wing viewers could justify their irrational hatred of her, not to say anything substantial about the modern American political process.
Roach’s second politically themed movie of the year, the tent-pole comedy “The Campaign,” which stars Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as dueling North Carolina Congressional candidates, suffers from the exact opposite problem: It isn’t fiery or accusatory enough. In fact, it isn’t fiery or accusatory at all, failing to deliver a single gut-punch to either the Republicans or the Democrats.
Whereas Roach and company’s assertions about Palin in “Game Change” were ludicrous and demeaning because they were part of a film that portended to depict the truth, the filmmakers had every right to swing for the fences in “The Campaign” because it’s a comedy with fictional characters. Done right (see the more cerebral “Wag the Dog”), the genre is a perfect venue to express real discontent in the American political apparatus. Alas, Roach and writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell made “The Campaign” with only two interrelated targets in mind: the Koch Brothers and campaign finance laws, neither of which prove to be good fodder for comedy or intelligent ideas.
In fact, Roach mostly uses the Koch-inspired Motch Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Ackroyd) as inciters of the plot, rather than actual subjects of satire beyond the liberal platitude that they are evil, corrupting influencers in politics. When Farrell’s multi-term incumbent, the John Edwards-modeled Cam Brady, is caught red-handed in an extramarital affair, the Motches see an opening to push an opposing candidate who they will later be able to manipulate for their own gain. Their master plan involves “insourcing” low-paid Chinese labor to a North Carolina factory in order to save millions in shipping costs.
From the early moment in which the Motches select Evangelical family-man Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) to be their Republican nominee, the movie’s topicality decreases even further. Much of the humor is broad, standard-issue Farrell material, such as a dinner-table discussion over which Marty asks his young sons to confess their sins, which turn out to be predictably crude. Even the politically-related jokes are painfully non-partisan and say little more about our current system than that it is phony — Marty’s handlers replace his pugs with more popular dogs, Cam runs a misogynistic ad sexualizing his wife to appeal to male voters, Marty gets Cam drunk and calls the cops right after handing him his car keys, et cetera.
Even worse: Despite its raunch-com beginnings–teens can be thankful that the R-rating bars them from seeing this dud–the movie uses its third act as an opportunity to voice a truly nauseating plea for restoring honor and civility back into American politics. Thus, not only is the audience robbed of the sort of politically-incorrect humor that would actually elicit a laugh–a feat the movie never achieves–but they are forced to endure yet another empty lecture on why it is now more important than ever that our representatives join hands and sing “Kumbaya,” no matter how vehement their disagreements. This commentary is conspicuous coming from Roach, who hardly valued civility when he made “Game Change” just months prior.
Seventy-three years ago, Frank Capra directed “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a film that succeeded in telling a political story without voicing a partisan agenda (Jimmy Stewart’s protagonist was a man who made conservative-sounding speeches, but ran for Congress on the liberal premise of obtaining taxpayer-funding for a special interest group). Needless to say, Roach and writers Henchy and Harwell are not Capra. The travesty of “The Campaign,” however, lies in the fact that it didn’t call for them to be. Had the filmmakers simply taken a few well-written partisan jabs, they would have at least injected some life into this otherwise lame and exceedingly obvious “comedy.” Sure, they may have alienated viewers of certain political convictions in the process, which is usually not financially wise for a mass-appeal summer release to do. But as it stands, “The Campaign” will alienate nearly all viewers due to its lack of laughs and self-important finale. The movie is certainly not a victory, let alone a landslide.