Will Ferrell satire trades audacity for silliness

Ads for the new Will Ferrell film The Campaign use the tagline “May the Best Loser Win”–a reference to its plot about two political buffoons running for public office. Ferrell plays North Carolina’s incumbent Congressman Cam Brady and Zach Galifianakis plays his challenger, local tour director Marty Huggins. The cynicism of that ad takes for granted that moviegoers already think politicians are dishonest and ineffectual; careerists without honor. This cynicism does not misrepresent the movie and is the worst thing about it.

Director Jay Roach, working from a story by Adam McKay & Chris Henchy & Shawn Harwell, practices a weird condescension suggesting that average American moviegoers might be smarter and more honest than the politicians they distrust. (Who, in essence, make fools of them.) This lets audiences off the hook for enabling con-artists and incompetents. In other words, The Campaign ignores the electoral process as well as the social ideas that conceived it.  Decades after Frank Capra, these filmmakers reject any hope or virtue in the idea of public service. (Huggins is one-of-the-people yet so inept he embarrasses his own sincerity) Without idealism, our corrupted political viewpoint is either partisanship or condescension.

I suppose Roach, McKay and co. deserve credit for avoiding obvious pandering. Left-bias has become the standard mode for pundits and comedians who exploit interest in political topics. So The Campaign’s political cynicism comes through in its many allusions to safe political types: Brady‘s a philanderer, Huggins is a freakishly earnest neophyte. Call them Clinton and H. Ross Perot. They’re oddly generic, innocuous targets, spoofing out-of-the-headlines peccadilloes where a bolder comedy  might have actually named the butt of its jokes or feature more up-to-date targets. Lacking boldness, raunch and idiocy remain–Ferrell’s penchant for exhibitionism is again, alternately hilarious and foolish (Brady is both a hothead and a hound-dog) and Galifanakis is puerile as always (he minces and prances in ways that turn every film he makes into Waiting for Guffman–not a complement).

Though I laughed at some of The Campaign (particularly Karen Maruyama as an Asian maid using Mammy dialect), its unoriginal silliness doesn’t liberate one from the fact that most politics are not a laughing matter. The Campaign makes it woefully clear that we’re in a era when political satire is as dead as Lenny Bruce and the current era of political comedy  is nothing more than Bread and Circuses.

Roach (who tried to prove his political bona fides by directing HBO’s Recount  and Game Change) clearly wants to capitalize on this Presidential election year; too bad he failed to skewer it. Presidential politics should not be left to TV’s Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show–programs too indebted to a particular ideology to be truly, independently satirical. Who does Roach think he is now, the Costa-Gavras of sitcoms? Check the list of TV’s so-called “”journalists” who make cameo appears in this buffoonery: Wolf Blitzer, Chris Matthews, Piers Morgan, Bill Maher, Dennis Miller, Lawrence O’Donnell, Ed Schultz and the unholy trio from MSNBC’s Morning Joe: Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and Willie Geist. H.L. Mencken would scold you all.

I expected something better from McKay after the animated PowerPoint graphics that served as the end-credits of his The Other Guys–it was a surprisingly thorough diagram laying-out the financial mess that led to the current Recession. But the baby-punching jokes, porno political ads, allusions to Dick Cheney’s hunting accident and to the Koch Brothers (called the Motch Brothers played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) but not George Soros, are part of the same weak, imprecise humor as that New Yorker Magazine fist-bumping Obama cover that confused satire, parody, lampoon and mockery,

The Campaign avoids the campaign that matters, partly because what passes for contemporary political humor is Left-biased and stuck with Obama as a sacred cow–and contemporary comedians are uncharacteristically reverent. That’s why  The Campaign’s lily white premise is lily-livered. Roach’s best effort at audacity gives Huggins a signature stump speech, “Washington, D.C., I’m bringing my broom. It’s a mess!” It’s a non-rousing, innocuous line, another of Hollywood’s empty campaign promises.


Follow Armond White on Twitter @ 3xchair