1 hour, 25 minutes
I hate it when you get all keyed up to go to a movie that’s got a great cast, great premise, boatloads of potential, and then the whole thing just falls flat. That’s how I felt about “Step Brothers,” a movie I absolutely hated. Luckily, this week’s film, another Will Ferrell project, isn’t that bad, but it’s not that good either. “The Campaign” most resembles a Saturday Night Live sketch. It starts out funny, but it goes on too long, gets too gross, and eventually just loses control.
Ferrell is Cam Brady, a four-term incumbent congressman from North Carolina who has habitually run unopposed. Brady is a terrible congressman, however, and after a sex-scandal threatens to derail his career, a pair of wealthy industrialist siblings decide to finance a competitor in the hopes of gaining a valuable vote in the house. The brothers want to, essentially, sell the congressional district to China, set up Chinese-style factories, and staff them with low-paid Chinese workers, all in the hopes of being able to stamp “Made in the USA” on their cheap garments. This sub-plot was, frankly, stupid, and only served to slow down the escalating chaos provided by the films two talented protagonists, Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, who plays challenger Marty Huggins, a mincing little dweeb of a man who runs a small downtown tour-bus company.
Huggins, despite his squeamish exterior however, really wants this job, and with the help of hired campaign manager muscle Tim Watley, will do anything to get it. Cam, on the other hand, will do anything to keep his position, and therein lie the fireworks. The campaign stuff, the speeches, the commercials, the signs, the debates — all of that is great stuff and very funny. The weepy sentimentality about fathers and sons, husbands and wives, and economic patriotism — not so much.
The reason I hated “Step Brothers” was that it was rated R, unlike most of Will Ferrell’s other films which, to that point, had been rated PG-13. With the R-rating, Will and the boys went hog wild and the result was an offensive, frankly unwatchable at times, mess of weird nudity, cruel jokes, and unending profanity. The last thing I needed to see was Mary Steenburgen unloading a string of F-bombs on the neighborhood passersby.
“The Campaign” is also rated R, so I was naturally concerned about a repeat of the previous experience. Not so. Yes, there are some gross jokes, and quite a bit of profanity, but somehow it all, or most of it, anyway, seems to fit pretty well. As the movie went on, the writers returned to the weird sex well a few too many times and it got a little old, but this is not the biggest problem with the movie.
Honestly, if director Jay Roach, who has given us some great comedies, from “Meet the Parents” to “Austin Powers,” would have just let his stars go at each other, things would have been fine. Cam, who is freaked out at the prospect of losing, is hilarious in the lengths he’s willing to go to win. Huggins is an idealist, but learns the art of fighting dirty as well. They carry this film.
But instead of focusing on what works, the filmmakers insist on saddling the movie with this cumbersome Chinese thing. The depiction of the Chinese people and factory is so broad, so stereotypical, that you’d think it was written by Jerry Lewis in full-on Ping regalia. (If that reference is too old for you, think Michael Scott doing a Ping impersonation). It was odd — I almost wonder if it wasn’t some kind of backward, upside-down criticism of people who hate the Chinese. Also, this story element allows the film to completely waste two incredible actors as the wealthy industrialist brothers: John Lithgow, who is as good as ever, and Dan Aykroyd, who’s best days may well be behind him.
There is a lot to like in “The Campaign.” When pitting two comic professionals against each other, things go well. Also good are Cam’s reasonable and easy-going campaign manager Mitch, played by Jason Sudeikis, and the aforementioned evil Tim Watley, played with menace by Dylan McDermott. There were several places I really laughed, especially at the campaign commercials, but more often than not, I found myself merely chuckling. It’s a shame, because the election season is ripe for comedy. You have only to turn on CNN and everyday it’s something different, from the Republican congressman who thought it would be a good idea to skinny dip in the Sea of Galilee, to Joe Biden telling a predominantly black audience that Romney’s economic policies were going to put them back in chains. Surely he meant the shackles of financial instability, but talk about a poor choice of words.
You can’t make this stuff up, and you don’t have to, because they’re making it up for you in Washington every day. Making a movie like “The Campaign” should have been a no-brainer, but unfortunately someone took that phase a little too literally.
“The Campaign” is rated R for language, sexual situations, and crude humor.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.