3 1/2 out of 4 stars
There are two -- and just two -- things wrong with "The Campaign."
After 80 minutes of mercilessly going for the jugular, it spends its last five sheepishly tugging at the heart strings. It should have also come out on Nov. 2, the last Friday before Election Day 2012. It is the best political satire since "Wag the Dog" and makes it thoroughly clear to everyone just how brutal, raw, cynical, petty and phony the American electoral process has become. And all of it is done while making you laugh uncontrollably the entire time.
Setting it during a 2012 Congressional race in the real battleground state of North Carolina lends it instant legitimacy and credibility. While being up-to-the minute topical and slightly retooling many recent real-life faux-pas (think Dick Cheney's hunting exploits or John Edwards' pricey haircuts and mistress issues), it is anything but preachy, highbrow, smug or elitist. It's politics for both the lunchbox crowd and white tablecloth diners. By not straining to appeal to a specific target demographic, it becomes all-encompassing. Smart and funny has rarely been executed this well at the same time in any politically themed movie.
What's more amazing is that at its core, "The Campaign" is buffoonish slapstick and gets dangerously close to being top-heavy with pratfalls and physical humor -- the bread-and-butter calling cards for Will Ferrell (Cam) and Zach Galifianakis (Marty). Both men have done plenty of these kinds of "zany" movies before and they're very good at what they do, but more often than not the material they pick is ... wanting. "The Campaign" marks career zeniths for each of them.
A moderate Democrat running unopposed for the umpteenth time, Cam is Edwards by way of W. After misdialing and leaving a vividly pornographic message on the answering machine of a very religious family, Cam's approval numbers plummet. The two Koch family-inspired king-making Mott brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) realize it's time to stop funding the malleable but self-destructive Cam and back a mostly dim conservative neophyte -- Marty.
Described by his perpetually disappointed father (Brian Cox) as a Hobbit excreted by Richard Simmons, Marty is a fey, way-too-chirpy, homespun guy.
In order to whip Marty into fighting shape in double time, the Motts hire grizzled campaign manager Tim (Dylan McDermott), a no-bull taskmaster who gives Marty, his family and their home an ultra-conservative overnight makeover. There are dead animal heads mounted on the brick walls, Bibles placed prominently and a painting of a bald eagle over the fireplace. Tim's final touch is replacing Marty's beloved Pugs (of Chinese origin and therefore patently evil) with a Golden Retriever and a Black Lab (the two breeds that test best with likely voters). No detail is too small or inconsequential for the tenacious Tim and, in no time flat, Marty is molded, shaped and sculpted into a bona fide contender.
Veteran writer Chris Henchy and newcomer Shawn Harwell cram as much detail as they possibly can into 85 minutes and thanks to Jay Roach's crisp, fifth-gear, overdrive direction, the narrative is swift-paced but never rushed. "The Campaign" is easily Roach's best effort since the first "Austin Powers" installment.
The most impressive feat pulled off by "The Campaign" is remaining politically neutral. The filmmakers have chosen to be "equal opportunity offenders" by blurring the lines between Democrat and Republican. Each party is fully capable to look stupid, narrow-minded, flip-floppy and pandering with similar skill sets.
The filmmakers further increase the movie's authenticity by including more than a dozen TV talking heads (from both sides of the aisle) as themselves in cameos offering their commentary and pointed jokes as the campaign progresses. Political junkies will have a veritable field day.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the movie is brimming with extremely graphic, finely-detailed, highly-descriptive profanity. Little is left to the imagination. There's also physical violence of sorts involving a baby and a dog. It's fake movie violence and fitting for what's taking place in the story, but nonetheless it will likely enrage many easily offended.
"The Campaign" is honest and real and not the movie many were expecting. The truth often hurts but sometimes it can also be wildly invigorating and liberating. (Warner Bros.)