Sunday, August 12, 2012

Mr. Ferrell and Mr. Galifinakis Go To Washington -- Reflections on "The Campaign" (2012)

I imagine the GOP are taking notes...Wait! They wrote the book!

One of the most “American” films I’ve ever seen – and by “American” I mean films that focus on the founding principles of this country that have taken on such a mythological status that they are the interpretive playground of pundits on both sides of our political spectrum – is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Made during Hollywood’s golden year of 1939, it tells the beautiful story of Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart), a naïve scout leader who is wrangled into politics by fat cats that think he can be easily manipulated. In the movie’s legendary climax – SPOILER ALERT!!! – Mr. Smith proves them all wrong by staging the greatest filibuster in American history, real or fake in order to protect a piece of land he believes should be used to create a national boys’ camp. It’s a sincere film about the enduring power of our nation’s political system in the face of corruption.

As I watched The Campaign, Jay Roach’s newest comedy starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifinakis as bozos competing for a congressional seat, I found myself thinking about how so much has changed in our nation since 1939, yet how much has stayed the same. The corruption within Washington only seems to have set deeper roots, while gaining more publicity; and our nation’s citizenry is clamoring for more and more honesty from individuals who seem about as trustworthy as wolf-spotting shepherd boys. We want more Jefferson Smiths, but we keep getting more and more faceless politicos with invisible brands marking their wallets and campaign coffers.

Ferrell and Galifinakis play dueling politicians. Ferrell is Cam Brady, a lifelong Congressman, whose moral improprieties have done little over the years to keep him from running unopposed. But after he makes a majorly funny mistake involving an ill-advised phone call, a couple fat cats called the Motch Brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Litgow, channeling their inner Koch Brothers wickedness) decide to plant a candidate in the race who will eventually help them in getting the right permissions to relocate their Chinese sweatshops here in the U.S. – a process called “insourcing.” They settle on Marty Huggins (Galifinakis), a sweet, lovable buffoon who runs a tourism service and struggles to open doors.

Marty and Cam’s political war is a mounting game of one-upsmanship, and keeps getting darker and darker while also getting funnier and funnier. Roach gets the most out of scenes involving baby hitting, recitation of the Lord’s prayer, and some of the best political commercial spots ever committed to film. It’s obvious Ferrell and Galifinakis are having a blast, and they give their all to these detestable, yet lovable characters. And the supporting characters – especially Dylan McDermott as a Marty’s shady campaign advisor – are well-used, putting the crazy in this film’s crazy world.

Despite all the positives, despite all the laughs, I’m still not in love with The Campaign.

We need a movie like The Campaign now, especially during this current Presidential race. But I’m not sure we actually need this movie. The Campaign is a wickedly funny, remarkably intelligent, and typically raunchy satire of our current political system. Where last year’s The Ides of March dealt with these issues in an ultra-serious, self-congratulatory manner, The Campaign never takes itself too seriously not to enjoy the occasional debauchery. It revels in the messed up sexual mores of its characters, as well as the ethical ones, too. And behind it all, there is a movie that is striving to remove the current Emperor’s clothes and reveal the insecurity, vanity, and compromised heart underneath.

But, when it matters most – just like with actual political campaigns, at the end – Roach’s film forgets that it’s about now, not about 1939. The optimism of Frank Capra’s film was earned by its stubborn, unflappable protagonist. The flip-flop ending of The Campaign knocks out all of the film’s teeth by giving us something hopeful, optimistic, and about as sincere as Mitt Romney’s smile. I found myself enjoying the movie so much that I was ready to hail it “comedy of the year” status until the last five minutes left me deflated. Obviously, I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that I can’t honestly review the movie without making my reservations known. Most people will probably love it, leave happy – no doubt it performed well with focus groups – but I left feeling cheated. I wanted something darker, something keeping with the movie’s overall despairing tone and compromised protagonists; instead I got Mr. Smith.

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