Oh, it can be pretty funny at times. But one scene of solid comedy will run into one of those flat “Saturday Night Live” skits that dies on the screen from its own staleness and absurdity.
This is the kind of comedy that even loses tracks of its own jokes. A TV ad showing one candidate screwing another candidate’s wife gets the worst numbers from women in the history of numbers. But the candidate airs the ad anyway and gets a “bump” in the polls.
Did the filmmakers forget the previous punch line? Women do outnumber men among the electorate.
A comedy starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis can’t be all bad so “The Campaign,” directed haphazardly by Jay Roach, will enjoy a semi-successful whistle-stop tour through cinemas for a week or two until the public votes with its feet and elects to see a different comedy.
The screenplay by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell does have devilishly clever bits lurking in the margins. Such as the Old Southern mansion where an Asian maid makes extra money by talking like Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” to soothe the rattled nerves of staunch Confederates or the chocolate lab and golden retriever dogs placed in a candidate’s home because those breeds have the highest polling numbers.
The movie begins as a kind of a raunchy Mad Magazine version of the Robert Redford film “The Candidate.” A North Carolina congressman played by Ferrell, Cam Brady, is running unopposed until he leaves a dirty phone message on what he believes to be the answering machine of his mistress. This turns out to be the home phone of God-fearing Christian voters.
The billionaire right-wing Motch brothers behind Cam, John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd (inspired presumably by the real-life Koch brothers), need a new candidate with a better image. They hit upon a local tourist director, Marty Higgins (Galifianakis), as their man.
Galifianakis’ voice and physical mannerisms remind me of Jack Black’s “light-in-the-loafers” character in “Bernie” earlier this year. However, Galifianakis plays Marty more as an overgrown child, happy with his wife and sons and oblivious to how society reacts to his goofy enthusiasm.
Once professional campaign manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) gets his hooks into Marty though, he’s a ball-buster. On Cam’s side, he has a slightly more sensitive manager in Mitch (Jason Sudeikis) and a much tougher and cynical wife in Rose (Katherine LaNasa). She can tolerate the mistresses as long as she makes “second lady,” i.e., Mrs. Vice-President.
There are amusing bits such as a story Cam wrote as an 8-year-old called “Rainbow Land” resurrected by the opposition to prove he is a diehard communist. This is then followed by such nonsense as Cam dropping by the Higgins household to seduce his opponent’s wife (Sarah Baker).
In the right script, even that might have played if Mrs. Higgins were a different sort of character. The problem with the R-rated comedy, only discovered a few years ago by Hollywood, is that it grants a license for lazing writing. Throw in a foul word or an improbable sex scene and these are deemed utterly hilarious.
The current stink in American politics demands a comedy willing to go where no comedy has dared. “The Campaign” dares very little. Its villains are cartoons and the examination of political sloganeering and smear ads too superficial to inflict any real damage.
“The Campaign” reminds you of a reform bill that gets so watered down by the time it makes its way through Congress that it accomplishes absolutely nothing.
Opens: August 10, 2012 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures presents a Gary Sanchez/Everyman Pictures production
Cast: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Katherine LaNasa, Dylan McDermott, John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd, Brian Cox,Sarah Baker
Director: Jay Roach
Screenwriters: Chris Henchy & Shawn Harwell
Story by: Adam McKay & Chris Henchy & Shawn Harwell
Producers: Will Farrell, Adam McKay, Jay Roach, Zach Galifianakis
Executive producers: Amy Sayres, Jon Poll, Chris Henchy
Director of photography: Jim Denault
Production designer: Michael Corenblith
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Costume designer: Daniel Orlandi
Editors: Chris Alpert, Jon Poll
R rating, 90 minutes