If comedies could be graded on a scale of jokes per minute, "The Campaign" would be among the year's best. In terms of gags hitting the bull's-eye, not so good.
This broad knockabout political satire from Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis and director Jay Roach (of the Austin Powers and "Meet the Parents" films) sets up the contest for a North Carolina congressional seat as an energetic series of mudslinging attacks and underhanded maneuvers. But it simply isn't absurd enough to top America's ridiculous electoral process.
Ferrell, the incumbent, an unopposed Democrat, is a John Edwards/Anthony Weiner horndog named Cam Brady whose stump speech is essentially "America! Jesus! Freedom!" Crowds explode in cheers when they see him, principally because he's got the $900 haircut and perma-smiling wife that we've come to associate with Washington, D.C.
Enter the billionaire Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd), who are scheming to sell the congressional district to China. When they decide they should replace Cam with a new and improved sock puppet, they start a Super PAC for clueless small-town tour guide Marty Huggins to run as a Republican.
Galifianakis plays Marty as a mincing, breathy-voiced goody two-shoes whose innocence is the contest's first casualty. Marty's top-gun campaign manager (Dylan McDermott) evicts Marty's beloved Chinese pugs for a "higher-polling" lab and setter, switches his wardrobe from patterned cardigans to aggressive power suits, subjects his wife to a Katie Couric makeover and redecorates their house after the fashion of a macho man's hunting lodge. You can't win the regular-guy vote by simply being a regular guy. As the battle escalates, Marty becomes nearly as calculating, vindictive and obnoxious as Cam.
There's a generous quota of low comedy in the script by Shawn Harwell and Chris Henchy. Ferrell delivers a "your momma" joke worthy of the Trash Talk Hall of Fame, and while pandering to Evangelicals at a snake-handling church he has a triple-tiered physical mishap that's beautifully timed and executed. Galifianakis makes a nice mark in character-driven moments. There's a silly, awkward reunion with Marty's gruff, old-money father, Wade (Brian Cox).
And there are inspired oddball touches. Cam's American flag lapel pins grow larger as his poll numbers drop. A surreal cameo by a beloved canine makes for a great setup, punch line and call-back. Wade's peculiar massa-and-maid relationship with his housekeeper is an inspired twist on "The Help." But these are gems in a decidedly uneven grab bag.
"The Campaign" is too timid to aim a satirical shiv at the political jugular. Only a few jokes, like the rival's evasive, nonsensical promises to bring jobs to the district, really connect with the issues of the moment. It's as if the filmmakers don't trust us to follow the contest onscreen in terms more complicated than a playground fistfight. Nonpartisan take-no-prisoners satires, from "Idiocracy" to "Bulworth," "In the Loop" and "Election" earned their stinging laughs because they were uncomfortable viewing for audiences on every point of the ideological compass. "The Campaign" wants to entertain everyone by offending no one.
In fact, some of the most outrageous political jokes are actual you-can't-make-this-stuff-up footnotes from recent elections, slightly exaggerated. When one character concocts a preposterous attack ad slandering his opponent as a Taliban, the reaction isn't shocked laughter but chagrin. The best political comedy this season is on the news pages.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 • Twitter: @colincovert