The Campaign, like many a politician before it, tries to be all things to all people, and winds up delivering very little.
On paper, there was reason to be hopeful about The Campaign, mostly because its director, Jay Roach, seemed to embody exactly the mix the movie was trying to achieve. Roach has very successfully had twin careers, on the one hand helming such hit mainstream comedies as the Austin Powers series and the first two Meet the Parents movies, and on the other, as the man behind HBO's 2 excellent recent political docudramas Recount and Game Change. Surely here was a man who could combine politics and broad comedy into a treat as tasty as caramel with popcorn, right?
In the end, no. The Campaign is all silliness, and not very funny silliness at that. The premise is simple: in a small North Carolina congressional district, Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) has won reelection over and over, despite being lazy, corrupt and immoral. He's always had the backing of the Motch Brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, very much meant to be seen as surrogates for the Brothers Koch), greedy industrialists who care only about squeezing maximum profit out of Chinese workers (or Americans paid like Chinese workers). But Cam finds himself embroiled in a scandal when he accidentally leaves a foul-mouthed message on the answering machine of a pious family (headed by Jack McBrayer, playing his 900th version of Kenneth on 30 Rock). The Motches look for another candidate to run against Cam, and find Marty Huggins, a very eccentric gentleman who keeps corgis and whose entire family is proudly overweight. It's never clear just why the Motches, who aren't meant to be morons, would fix on the clueless Marty on their guy, other than that he's the little-loved 2d son of the town's other tycoon, Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox)--but in any case, Marty launches a run against Cam.
After that, as the film's marketing has already made clear, it's an escalating war of spin and ugly campaign tactics. The Motches hire Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) to coordinate dirty tricks for Marty, while Cam's campaign manager, who still has a shred of decency, is Mitch (Jason Sudeikis). Everyone's family gets embroiled in the race, and there's a cameo from a star of one of last year's Oscar winners whose identity is probably as close as the picture comes to a spoiler.
Despite Roach's presence, the predominant DNA of The Campaign is Will Ferrell's: he's one of the producers, and the 3 writers are all associates of his: screenwriters Chris Henchy (The Other Guys, Land of the Lost) and Shawn Harwell (Eastbound & Down), and story writer Adam McKay (half a dozen Ferrell vehicles). The result is the worst of both worlds: Ferrell's broad slapstick is impeded from its sometimes surreal brilliance by a half-hearted attempt to deliver a message about modern American politics. Campaign doesn't have the nerve to make either of its protagonists unlikeable--especially not Ferrell--and so its satire is completely toothless, with Aykroyd and Lithgow basically standing in for Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy in Trading Places (except that comedy dared to make its villains genuinely racist and hateful). It's interesting to note that while each candidate's manhood, intelligence and family is assailed as part of the hijinks, it never even occurs to the Huggins camp to go after Cam for his actual failings as a Congressman--the script has no interest in going near real issues.
There are a few laughs. Ferrell gets a set-piece shtick delivered to him on a silver platter when Cam is forced to prove he's really religious by reciting the Lord's Prayer from memory--it's just a variation of the mangled dinner prayer he delivered in Talladega Nights (co-written and directed by Adam McKay), though, and less funny for the repetition. Galifianakis has one good bit where Marty takes abruptly violent action against Cam. A running gag about Marty's father's maid is initially a big laugh, but clearly it tested well, because she's brought back for the tacked-on epilogue, which succeeds in running the joke into the ground. Dylan McDermott's character manages not to be overdone, a virtual miracle in this context, even though he's basically just playing Scott Cohen's character from Necessary Roughness.
The stars don't do anything we haven't seen before, as Ferrell basically combines Ricky Bobby with his George W. Bush, and Galifianakis, camping up a storm, does his old "Seth Galifianakis" character. Neither performer even tries for any sense of emotional reality, and even while the occasional attempt at furthering a character arc for either of them falls flat (possibly also as a result of heavy editing, considering that the final film is 85 minutes including credits), they don't rise to any heights of craziness either. Roach's direction is no more than rudimentary (there's not even any particular style to the fake campaign commercials), without much comic rhythm or edge.
Political satire is famously not a popular genre--Election, probably the best of the last 20 years, didn't even make $15M--so it's understandable that everyone behind The Campaign thought that blending that kind of comedy with Will Ferrell's moneymaking yuk-yuk style might create an effective combination. But not all coalitions can hold together, and The Campaign loses in a landslide.