If one had hypothetically managed to remain unaware of the upcoming US Presidential election, the presence of The Campaign in UK cinemas would still make it obvious that America has politics on the brain. Indeed, Jay Roach’s political satire is the sort of film that could only exist in an election year, featuring as it does various nods towards the Obama-Romney race. It also boasts the sort of tossed-off, lowest common denominator humour that only becomes explicable when viewing the film as a slice of timely opportunism.
A tale of mudslinging and dirty tricks, The Campaign sees Will Ferrell’s obnoxious Congressman Cam Brady take on Zak Galifianakis’ challenger Marty Huggins in an election secretly influenced by big business. With John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd’s shady execs funding his campaign, Huggins pulls level in the race thanks to the best operatives money can buy, prompting a game of public humiliation and one-upmanship that extends to the candidates shooting one another, seducing each others’ wives and punching both dogs and babies on live television.
All of which might be grounds be for solid comedy, if The Campaign wasn’t such a crass, lame-brained hotchpotch. Neither cleverly arch in the tradition of Dr Strangelove and Wag the Dog, or cleverly crude in the mould of South Park: The Movie and Harold & Kumar go to Guantanamo Bay, Roach ignores brilliant precedents for lampooning public figures, instead relying on a series of cheap shots at the expense of gay people, housewives and the American South.
Decent early scenes, and the presence of Ferrell and Galifianakis, only make The Campaign’s failings all the more disheartening. An audibly African American maid answering the door to reveal herself as Asian, wearily confessing that she pretends for the benefit of an employer who wishes to be reminded ‘of the good old days’, is the sort of lampooning that recently made Ted such effective, offensive comedy. What follows, though, is a series of punch lines identifying Southerners as yokels, fundamentalists and sex-crazed sleazes, with the laughs troublingly expected to come almost exclusively from Galifianakis’ effeminate, sensitive oddball.
By the time Cam Brady is bedding Huggins’ wife – a scene that, as far as one can tell, is supposed to be funny because of the woman’s figure – The Campaign is already on the skids. Lithgow and Aykroyd’s businessmen, clearly inspired by controversial Tea Party supporters the Koch Brothers, are just one of several plot points hinting at a better film, one inspired by the bizarre state of America’s political climate. The Campaign, though, decides to hedge its bets Romney-style. Using tired, lazy stereotypes that swerve any relevance to the times, it ironically treats both Americans and its audience with the same contempt as the politicians it lampoons. In doing so, it represents the sort of naked pandering that can only indicate one thing: it must be election year.