“This is a revolution, damnit — we’re going to have to offend somebody!” bellows the rancorous John Adams in the musical “1776,” as his fellow Continental Congressmen hack away at the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, hoping not to upset Great Britain so much with their talk of separation.
Too bad the makers of “The Campaign” didn’t take Adams’ advice. While the raucous comedy, starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as two boobs competing for a North Carolina congressional seat, often brings the laughs, the movie’s ultimate timidity over possibly vexing viewers of any political stripe renders the whole project somewhat sterile.
Cam Brady (Ferrell) has no opponents as he goes for his fifth term in the House, but after he accidentally leaves a salacious message intended for his mistress on an evangelical family’s answering machine, the rich and powerful Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) sense weakness and recruit an opponent: Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), who resembles a close cousin to Jack Black’s effeminate small-town charmer in “Bernie,” except that Marty happens to be the son of Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox), a former political advisor to Jesse Helms.
The Motches send in Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) to give Marty a full political makeover — his turtlenecks-under-cardigans look is replaced with blue suits, and his “Chinese” pugs are shoved aside for breeds that tested better with focus groups. As Marty’s poll numbers go up, Cam goes more and more negative in increasingly outrageous ways.
The screenplay by Shawn Harwell and Chris Henchy (both veterans of the Ferrell-produced HBO comedy “Eastbound and Down”) keep the gags coming steadily, but as the rivalry between the candidates gets crazier, “The Campaign” drifts further away from actually commenting on contemporary politics, making the film an amiable time-filler but a wasted opportunity in this era of extreme partisanship. (The Motch brothers, for example, are clearly meant to be a parody of the astroturfing Kochs, but the film’s jabs at them are either broadly exaggerated or merely meek.)
Ferrell and Galifianakis are both in greatest-hits mode: Cam Brady feels like the point of intersection between previous Ferrell characters Ricky Bobby, Ron Burgundy and George W. Bush, while Galifianakis has given us some version of the soft man-boy with the sweaters and the little dogs in most of his big-screen outings.
“The Campaign” does offer a few nifty running gags — keep an eye on the never-commented-upon American-flag lapel pins that grow larger and larger — but it culminates in such a wimpy, hands-across-America way that it completely sidesteps any real jabs it might have made at the times in which we live.
The end result is so namby-pamby that pretty much any sitting politician — no matter how corrupt or stupid — would happily endorse this message.