Comedies are plagued by a cruel and unforgiving rule of thumb: their success is only as loud as an audience's laughs. Subjective, unpredictable, and beholden to the tastes of the here and the now, there’s no appealing to the fringe with comedy, especially if said comedy has mainstream ambitions. In an age where blockbusters come in all shapes and sizes, there’s nothing funny about an unfunny comedy – and that, in itself, is a particular kind of tragedy.
In ‘The Campaign’, Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is the amiable, moderately philandering congressman of North Carolina, a position he’s retained for the simple reason that no one’s ever run against him. This changes when two conniving CEOs (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) conspire to install a congressman more aligned with their aims (i.e. to open a Chinese sweat-shop on all-American soil), and select the most unlikely man imaginable: Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the oddball black sheep of a renowned political family. With Brady’s constituency under threat from this unlikely (and increasingly popular) interloper, the campaign for North Carolina’s hearts – and votes – takes an expectedly zany and escalating turn.
The problem with ‘The Campaign’ is precisely its most appealing quality: its talent. Between the two of them, Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis have a body of work that ranks among the most financially and critically successful comedies of the past decade. ‘Anchorman’, ‘The Hangover’, ‘Step Brothers’ et al aren’t high art, but they are comedically assured, possessed of a kind of extreme absurdity, and are, above all, endlessly quotable. Unlike these films (and others, like ‘Bridesmaids’ and ‘Ted’), ‘The Campaign’ has no kind of life after it concludes: the satire is unfocused and vague, few scenes possess a line or exchange worthy of repeat around the water cooler, and it never crosses a line of excess that might come as a welcome surprise. The film simply isn’t as good as any of Ferrel/Galifianakis’ combined oeuvre (or even comedies produced this year), and suffers greatly from comparison.
Worse still, ‘The Campaign’ represents the mediocre sum of all its talented parts. Ferrell is beginning to suffer from serious over-exposure, and his shtick shows its age. While his contemporaries (Jim Carrey, Robin Williams and Steve Carell) identified their mid-career hump and diversified, ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ remains Ferrell’s sole (successful) attempt to break out of his self-perpetuating typecasting. Ferrell is in dire need of new material, and while the character of Brady is a regular Ferrell-ite (a mixture of gross incompetence and verbose stupidity), the script fails to make him both redeemable and endearing – essential qualities for Ferrell’s broad ‘everyman’. Galifianakis fares better but no less hollowly, rising above bad odds to make his fey Marty more than a one-joke caricature, even if comedy legends John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd are utterly wasted in unfunny supporting roles. Jay Roach, director of the ‘Austin Powers’ and ‘Meet the Parents’ films, does the best he can with haphazard attempts at satire, but without the assured punchlines of the former franchise, or the mannered chaos of the latter, his efforts mostly fall flat.
‘The Campaign’ represents the mediocre sum of all its talented parts.
‘The Campaign’, like its talent pool, is caught in a lacklustre no man’s land of confused inertia. Unsure whether to relapse into the familiar juvenile antics or make a serious attempt at a grown-up subject, it instead settles for a stab in both directions that never pays off. The laughs give way to increasing periods of silence, and while there is initially some fun to be had in the familiar routine, ‘The Campaign’ is ultimately too familiar to sustain its own ambitious, as slight as they may be.