Surprisingly tough political comedy deserves the vote
There are two main objections to political comedy. The first is that politics is now beyond parody. This is a tough one to argue against, except to observe that we'd have been denied Yes Minister and The Thick of It if such a viewpoint was widely endorsed.
The second, which seems to be promulgated solely by Alastair Campbell, maintains that anything lowering the standing of the political process in the eyes of the public is bad for democracy. It's a safe bet he will not be queuing to see The Campaign.
As you might expect from the director of Austin Powers and the star of Anchorman, this isn't the kind of satire that's going to cause Armando Iannucci any sleepless nights. But it is surprisingly tough for a mainstream comedy, depicting America as being run by big business, which has corrupt, venal politicians in its pocket.
More daringly, the electorate are shown as fickle, gullible morons, cynically manipulated by the political classes. It's worth remembering that Jay Roach also directed two well-received TV movies about American politics: Recount, exploring the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election, and Game Change, which charted the emergence of Sarah Palin onto the national stage.
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Elements of both of those dramas have found their way into The Campaign. But worry not, Will Ferrell fans. This is still essentially Ron Burgundy blundering his way into politics, and you do get to see him shout a lot. And punch a baby.
Ferrell plays dim-bulb North Carolina Democrat congressman Cam Brady: a stuffed suit with an expensive haircut who's so used to being elected unopposed that all he has to do is describe each special interest group he addresses as being the "backbone of our great nation" and remember the three words that trigger a Pavlovian response among voters – America, Jesus and Freedom.
But then Cam commits a terrible gaffe, accidentally leaving an obscene message intended for his pneumatic mistress on the answerphone of a God-fearing constituent. All his dissembling and blustering skills won't get him out of this one.
The billionaire industrialist Motch brothers (John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd) – who are, of course, in no way related to the real-life right-wing billionaire industrialist Koch brothers – seize the opportunity to put up a Republican puppet candidate against him as part of an evil plan to "insource" cheap Chinese labour.
The man they select is buffoonish, pliable, portly local tourism officer Marty Huggins (Zack Galifianakis). To ensure he gets elected, ruthless campaign manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) is drafted in for a full family lifestyle makeover.
These are, of course, fish in a barrel being assaulted by a broad comedy blunderbuss, but The Campaign blasts away with infectious glee as dirty tricks come into play.
Stand-out scenes include Marty playing the God Card by declaring his loyalty to Jesus Christ ("the greatest American who ever lived") and calling Cam out on his ability to recite the Lord's Prayer ("Give us this day our daily pizza..."). Equally hilarious is the sequence where Marty solemnly informs his sons their lives will now be under the microscope, so if they have any confessions to make it's best to get them out the way immediately. Little does he suspect the litany of perversion this will unleash.
You may want to skip the ending, though. Perhaps mindful of the fact that it has spent the best part of 90 minutes telling its audience that they're suckers who can be made to fall for just about anything said by a plausible, well-groomed man in a suit with an airbrushed family at his side, the film cops out spectacularly with a last-reel celebration of the virtues of honesty and truthfulness. It's about as persuasive as a Nick Clegg apology.