There's a devil-may-care recklessness to Will Ferrell that sets him apart from other screen comics — a willingness to commit to the moment without fear of embarrassment, even if the comedy goes right off the rails.
The classic Ferrell scene — like his "prayer to Baby Jesus" in Talladega Nights — is a monologue that skitters along on weird and unexpected tangents that just barely tie into the speech's ostensible purpose. If he's on, there's no one funnier; if he's not, the entire movie can seem woefully undisciplined.
Ferrell's new comedy, The Campaign, is both funny and undisciplined, a political satire that works best when the commentary sags and the crass absurdism escalates.
Great political satires like The Candidate and In The Loop are focused and ruthless in targeting the foul charade of elections and policymaking. They have to be sharp in a way that's completely antithetical to Ferrell's brand of bumbling improvisation — and to the eccentric cadences of his co-star, Zach Galifianakis. As a consequence, The Campaign never draws blood, but settles for a few big laughs instead.
Armed with an expensive haircut and stump-speech platitudes, Ferrell does his best John Edwards as Cam Brady, a popular incumbent Democrat running unopposed in his North Carolina district. His approval numbers take a hit, however, when he leaves a lewd answering machine message intended for his mistress, and it opens the door for another candidate to go after his House seat.
Seeing an opportunity to secure their business overseas, the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) — a pair of corporate titans whose name pointedly evokes the real-life billionaire conservative Koch brothers — go searching for a challenger they can support.
After a vetting process flimsier than the one that nearly brought Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from the presidency, the Motches settle on Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), the simpleton son of a local Republican power broker. To transform this naif into a viable candidate, they buff out the weird edges in Marty's life and bring in a relentless political consultant (Dylan McDermott, in an inspired bit of casting) to pull the strings. With ineptitude and shamelessness on both sides, it's a race to the bottom.
Director Jay Roach, whose credits include the HBO political hits Game Change and Recount, as well as Austin Powers and Meet the Parents, attempts to use the tomfoolery to make a serious point about the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling and the unchecked flow of corporate cash it injected into our democracy. But it's a safe bet to say that all the candidates are for sale, regardless of party, because that keeps the film from having to fall on one side of the ideological divide or the other; at a time when congressional approval has fallen to its lowest levels, The Campaign makes the sort of populist appeal a world-class panderer like Cam Brady would appreciate.
Once the candidates finally square off, though, The Campaign turns into an infectiously ridiculous game of one-upmanship, as both men attack each other in free-for-all debates and unleash a series of ads and political stunts that cross the line and keep on running. Things get so ugly that Cam inadvertently punches a baby on live television and remains firmly ahead in the polls.
And therein lies the darkest joke of an otherwise mild satire: In the absence of the democracy we deserve, we're stuck with the candidates we have.