We're used to politicians talking out of both sides of their mouths. "The Campaign" is a political comedy that attempts that feat.
It's a rude farce that takes broad swipes at the political system and those who manipulate it. It's not subtle about attacking alleged election-buying billionaires the Koch brothers (called the Motch brothers here).
The candidates are basically puppets one a crass, lazy Democrat given to giving in to base instincts, the other an ill-informed Republican whose idealism gives way to a cynical makeover to make him more presentable to the North Carolina voters he seeks.
The voters are ranting rubes who can't stop fulminating enough to realize that calling the other guy's pug dogs "communists" is about the silliest thing ever.
But this R-rated comedy, directed by Jay Roach, tries to have it both ways. It straddles the "fair and balanced" fence, making the naive, effeminate Republican (Zach Galifianakis) an idealist backed by the evil Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) and the Democrat (Will Ferrell) a boozy, womanizing cynic whose idealism evaporated in high school.
The worst thing about the Republican is his stupidity. Galifianakis makes Marty Huggins, a Hammond, N.C., tour guide who is nothing but a disappointment to his racist, vile dad (Brian Cox), likably daft. Plump, prancing Galifianakis makes Marty the sort of guy you'd love to take to Chick-Fil-A. Or not. An early comic shock is seeing his equally plump wife and kids.
Ferrell is hilariously unlikable as Cam Brady, the four- term incumbent. Whatever his merits as a congressman, the idea that he has to run for re-election, and against this idiotic sissy, makes him nuts.
Marty, guided by a nasty political infighter (Dylan McDermott), has a killer campaign slogan to take him to Washington. "Bring your brooms," he says of D.C. "Because it's a mess."
Director Roach throws filthy-mouthed kids, sister-marrying "born again" Christians, sex in port-a-johns and wardrobe malfunctions at us. The campaign ads are jaw-droppers, full of whoppers and "Jesus" bromides and porn.
The candidates are the biggest mess of all.
But movies that step on that third rail of filmgoer appeal politics always pull punches. Think of "Swing Vote," which had a few stinging shots, but no spine, the last election cycle.
Here, the debates have a few chuckles. Challenge your opponent to recite "The Lord's Prayer," and hope his campaign aide (Jason Sudeikis, in his one good scene) has to mime the words for him.
Most of the laughs come from the shocks which can be shocking.
And the actors are game. Ferrell is in full "Anchor Man"-meets-"Ricky Bobby" mode loud, abrasive, big-haired and outrageous.
And Galifianakis refines the mincing ditzes he's made his shtick.
But steering clear of anything that might turn off some ticket-buyers makes the film feel as focus-grouped as the very campaigns it aims to spoof.
A little about Chinese child-labor, a bit more about rich people running things, are as edgy as it gets.
The one pure, fall-on-the-floor running gag in Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell's script is played to perfection by Karen Maru-yama. She's Mrs. Yao, the maid for Marty's bigoted dad, forced to talk in a Stepin Fetchit sing-song to remind him "of the good old days" when Jesse Helms was an icon and all was right with the South.
Maruyama kills, so much that they bring her back for an ill-considered finale bit.
By then, despite landing more than a few laughs beforehand, Roach must have known he needed help.
Two 1/2 Stars (out of four)
Cast: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Aykroyd, Karen Maruyama
Director: Jay Roach
Rated R (crude sexual content, language and brief nudity)