Political comedies are hard to pull off, so when I first saw ads for The Campaign, I figured that it'd be Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis playing over-the-top caricatures of Republicans and Democrats, eventually drawing the sort of false equivalency that has helped wreck the media's reputation by claiming that both sides are equally guilty of dirty tricks and are equally responsible for D.C. dysfunction, even though it's clear to anyone watching that the Republicans are, of course, much, much worse. But The Campaign exceeded my expectations by ignoring partisan politics and instead poking fun at the realities of modern campaigning, the role of wealthy donors, our gaffe-obsessed media, and, in the end, on voters themselves.
The Campaign takes place in North Carolina's 14th district, with Ferrell playing incumbent Cam Brady, another in Ferrell's long line of arrogant yet clueless buffoons. Though he's running unopposed, Brady is a gaffe and scandal machine, and his frequent transgressions eventually draw the concern of Brady's biggest donors, the Motch Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Akroyd) who are clearly based on real-life billionaires David and Charles Koch, who don't hide their desire and ability to use their giant fortune to reshape America in their own ultra-conservative image.
With Brady a liability, the brothers recruit a political neophyte from a prominent political family named Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis, who recently drew the Kochs' ire). An incredibly effete but apparently straight Christian family man who works in a tourism office, Marty is a blank canvas for Tim Wattley (a scene-stealing Dylan McDermott), a sinister but effective campaign manager hired by the Motches to transform Marty into an anti-incumbent upstart who easily sets traps for Brady to stumble into.
Brady is allegedly a Democrat, but I never got that sense while watching The Campaign, especially since Brady's "America, Jesus, Freedom" catchphrase, gun-toting photo opps, and attacks on Huggins for owning dogs with Chinese roots sounds a lot more like a Republican, or at least a blue dog. And Huggins' "throw the bums out" and "clean up Washington" rhetoric could be heard from candidates of either party, but most recently from the Tea Party, making this hardly about Left vs. Right.
But what The Campaign does highlight is how truly ridiculous and substanceless American politics has become. Neither Brady nor the Huggins bothers explain the specifics of how they'll improve the lives of the people in their district, and voters don't bother to ask since everyone is more interested in who seems manlier, who knows the Lord's prayer, and who kissed or accidentally punched a baby. While both candidates are inescapably dim, the electorate comes across as even dimmer for the value they put on gaffes, symbolism, and stage-managed personas.
And with the Motch brothers standing in for the Koch brothers and Republican patrons like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the fact that we now have a system where wealthy individuals can singlehandedly buy, sell, create, and bankroll candidates would be funnier if it wasn't true. And while it's true that both parties are guilty of relying on wealthy donors, Republicans are, again, much, much worse. After all, they're the party that's unabashedly by and for the rich with a particular passion for demonizing the poor, killing environmental regulations, and letting corporations run wild, which is the ultimate goal of the semi-fictional Motches.
With younger viewers probably wary of The Campaign's subject matter, adults turned off by its usually silly stars, and without a sharper satirical edge to lure politics junkies, The Campaign might face a difficult road at the box office. But as an ultimately accurate depiction of the debacle modern-day American politics has become, getting some good laughs at The Campaign might make you realize that we should all be taking politics a lot more seriously.