Electioneering and other dark arts in ‘The Campaign’

Karl R. de Mesa
A timely comedy for the pre-election period

FACE OFF. CAM BRADY (Will Ferrell) and Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) are aiming for that seat in Congress. All images from Warner Bros. Pictures

MANILA, Philippines – You’ve heard that joke about two campaign recruiters who go into a bar to canvass for votes and end up in a fist fight?

Well, this movie has its own version of that old nugget.     

Two Congressional candidates go into the crowd, post-speech. They mug for the cameras, shake hands left and right, smile like there’s no tomorrow. Both of them want to kiss a baby to sweeten the image-puffing deal.

Problem: there’s only one baby in THIS crowd. 

So, who gets to kiss the little darling? Not the fastest one, certainly. In The Campaign, it’s the guy who keeps his fists to himself.    

THE CAMPAIGN MANAGERS. Jason Sudeikis (Mitch Wilson) and Dylan McDermott (Tim Wattley)

As tasteless as that scene was, it’s outrageous and awful how hilarious it actually played out. Hunter S. Thompson, in his seminal Fear and Loathing on The Campaign Trail, might as well have penned this sweet, sweet rated R-13 gem.

Not only does it lampoon the American electioneering process and its often unethical methodology; it’s also a ribald, comedic vehicle for two great comedians: Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, under the command of director Jay Roach (who also helmed the Austin Powers series, with executive producer credits on Bruno and Borat).

We open with long-term Congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) on the campaign trail leading up to his 5th term as the representative for North Carolina’s 14th District. He’s a political dynasty of one as, throughout his first 4 terms, he ran and won unopposed. 

Talk about a bully, Cam Brady represents just about everything that’s gone awry with today’s politicos, never mind the American Congress.

He panders to public pathos in the worst way (in a quick cut-to-cut sequence, he names everybody from farmers to Filipino tilt-a-whirl operators as “the backbone of his nation” — Ferrell even manages a decent “Salamat!”), uses oral jiujitsu to dodge giving commentary on issues and his “America, Jesus, Freedom” motto is about as meaningless as it gets. 

THE MOTCH BROTHERS. John Lithgow (Glenn) and Dan Aykroyd (Wade)

Worst of all, he says it because it’s what voters want to hear. He does these things to remain in power.      

Never mind that he openly keeps a mistress. As his wife opined, she doesn’t mind as long as it’s kept under wraps.

Problem is, it all blows up in Brady’s face when he mistakenly leaves a very explicit voice message on the answering machine of a local family meant for his mistress, Shana (Kate Lang Johnson).

In the wake of the public gaffe, the powers that be have begun questioning Brady’s fitness for the position and as a lobbyist for their interests. Two of these power brokers come in the personage of The Motch Brothers (played to deadpan perfection by Dan Akroyd and John Lithgow), international businessmen who run sweatshop factories in China. Because of Brady’s shaky standing, they soon craft plot to hoist up a rival candidate. 

Enter Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the naïve and peculiar director of the Tourism Center of Hammond.

THE HUGGABLE HUGGINS. Zach Galifianakis is the thorn at Will Ferrell's side

With his effeminate ways, dishevelled appearance, zero know-how of the game and “fashion victim” sense of style, Higgins is as unlikely a candidate as they come. This, despite his pure intentions of public service and a lineage traced back to old Southern money. 

To this end, a superb supporting cast helps him out, representing the shadow backers and behind-the-scenes shakers that are the lynchpin of any successful political campaign.  

Take Dylan McDermott’s Tim Wattley as Higgins’ campaign manager.

Under orders from the Motch Brothers, he uses psychological voodoo and various dark arts to cajole, taunt, push and transform the meek and well-meaning candidate into a straight-backed, trash talking, double dealing creature to get his public approval ratings up.

In short, Huggins becomes a real politician. Predictably, he hates himself for it. 

TO THE LETTER. Will Ferrell does a great job at playing the role of the politician who can't let go

Still, Huggins becomes a real contender despite himself. All of a sudden, you’re rooting for the underdog as it becomes more and more likely he’ll be able to steal the votes.    

As Huggins’ star rises, Cam Brady flounders, committing faux pas after embarrassing faux pas. His secrets are the fodder for YouTube-worthy damage control, and his attempts at damage control turn the mess into utter catastrophe.

His temper gets the better of him, usually focused on how the upstart Huggins even dared to run against him. Add to that how Brady’s sleight-of-hand wordplay can no longer disguise his utter ignorance and incompetence.   

Huggins once challenges him to recite the Lord’s Prayer in front of a debate audience, which he failed miserably. Still, it made for one of the best scenes in the movie, as Mitch Wilson (ably played by Jason Sudeikis) as Brady’s campaign manager feeds him lines via charades. And he still got it wrong.      

As more and more dirty tricks are pulled out of each camp’s bag, election day closes in and the two are locked neck and neck. It culminates in the aforementioned punching brouhaha. To which Brady sighingly asks his staff, “Does no one want to know how my hand is after I punched that baby’s iron jaw?” 

FAMILY GUY. Zach Galifianakis' Marty Huggins has the values but less of the political charisma

Really, the heart of the movie is in the dirty tactics it takes to win an election on a municipal level; an event that has so many big boys and big interests at stake. Everything from corporate profits, dynastic control of territory and, weirdly enough, China. 

Seeing just how low they’ll go is the whole dynamic of this electoral carnival, which neither the Hallmark arced plot or the sometimes caricaturish templates of Brady and Huggins can wear down.

What saves the day is excellent acting. Ferrel and Galifianakis possess amazing comedic timing. They also have the body and facial acrobatics to go with it. Note how Huggins’ posture acutely improves from his days as a tour guide.  

The great pacing and transgressive nature of the comedic situations — that become more shocking and borderline obscene as election day nears — also nudge the movie from simple ha-ha-ha land into a laugh out loud, rip roaring, hell of a good time.   

Whether you’re rooting for the jock or the weirdo, this one is worth the watch for the guaranteed belly aches.


So, who wins this Congressional race?

Find out after all the punching and kissing. – Rappler.com 


The Campaign opens in Metro Manila theaters on Wednesday, August 29.




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