Truth may indeed be stranger than fiction. But fiction allows for a four-term U.S. congressman to punch a baby, landing a vicious right cross to its jaw and sending slobber flying in exquisite slow-motion like a scene from one of the “Rocky” movies.
That’s not a spoiler. That image — or at least the buildup to it — has been featured in virtually every promo for the political comedy “The Campaign.” And even though you know it’s coming, the scene is still shockingly hilarious.
The problem is, it comes so early in the movie that the filmmakers have to try to top it. They also have to be more outrageous than the real-life political campaigns they’re mocking. Eventually, they’re forced to go so far over the top of something that’s already out of control that the whole thing spirals into absurdity.
Congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) has the makings of a career politician. He thanks every constituency from the troops to Filipino Tilt-A-Whirl operators for being “our nation’s backbone.” He repeats his mantra — “America. Jesus. Freedom.” — at every turn despite having no idea what it means. “But,” he reasons, “people sure love it when I say it.”
Then a drunken, sexually explicit message left on the wrong answering machine — Cam’s latest in a long line of missteps — threatens his popularity, and powerful beltway insiders the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) begin looking for a new candidate to do their bidding.
Somehow, that search leads them to Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the naive tourism director of Hammond, N.C., a town so dull its biggest claim to fame came when actress Rosie Perez missed a turn on the highway and had to stop there for directions.
The effeminate, turtleneck-and-cardigan-wearing Marty is a mess. According to his disapproving father (Brian Cox), he “look(s) like Richard Simmons crapped out a hobbit.”
But the Motches send in a devious campaign manager (Dylan McDermott) to whip Marty into shape, changing everything about him in the process. Even his beloved pugs, Poundcake and Muffins — branded as “those Chinese dogs” — are replaced by higher-polling American breeds. And the more artificial Marty becomes, the more real his candidacy seems.
Ferrell’s Cam is the human equivalent of a political smoothie, blending the cocksure swagger of George W. Bush, the hair of John Edwards and the libido of Bill Clinton.
Galifianakis’ Marty, meanwhile, owes a huge debt to one of the comedian’s favorite characters, his fake twin brother, Seth. If you’re not a Galifianakis aficionado (say that five times fast), Marty combines Ned Flanders’ mustache, a shot of estrogen and just a hint of Jeff Foxworthy’s twang into something the likes of which could have pranced over from a Christopher Guest movie.
Ferrell and Galifianakis are notorious for their unwavering commitment to their characters. And seeing them, and their candidates, trying to one-up each other makes for some good, rude fun. But Cam and Marty feel more like something out of a Funny or Die sketch than living, breathing people.
Director Jay Roach gamely blends elements of his early broad commercial roots, the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” franchises, with touches of his critically acclaimed HBO political projects, “Recount” and “Game Change.” Although while there are plenty of laughs along the way, they never add up to a satisfying whole.
Marty repeats his equally innocuous campaign slogan — “It’s a mess” — so often, it seeps in subliminally to the point you may be tempted to think the same thing of “The Campaign.”
The movie’s not that bad, but none of it is likely to stick with you for much longer than the drive home.
Except for the baby punching. That’s the sort of thing that leaves a mark.
Christoper Lawrence is the film critic for the Las Vegas (NV) Review-Journal. Contact him at clawrence@ reviewjournal.com.