‘I’ ON CULTURE
The new political satire The Campaign is a bit of a strange film — funny but strange. Political satire does not generally work well in this country because things are often so weird that real life seems filled with irony. It is hard to top some of our own real-life politicians in the dumb things category.
In the movie, longtime Congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) speaks totally in clichés with a rapt public simply echoing him. When he manages to ruin what little is left of his reputation by leaving a pornographic voice message at a wrong number, a pair of billionaire brothers (John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd) decide it would be better to replace him with someone even dumber who will allow them to ignore environmental rules and pay imported Chinese workers 50 cents an hour. They choose Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), who seems to fit the bill perfectly. At that point, the political contest just gets wilder and weirder until a conclusion that seems more than a bit rushed.
The gold standard for American political satire is the 80-year old musical Of Thee I Sing by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In the play, John Wintergreen is nominated for president on a platform of love, and he promises to marry the winner of a national beauty pageant. Along the way, he falls for the sweet young lady who was hired to run the pageant. They marry, which causes an international kerfuffle because the winner of the contest, Miss South Carolina, is “the illegitimate daughter of the illegitimate son of the illegitimate nephew of Napoleon.” Wintergreen is about to be impeached when his wife gives birth to twins and France prepares for war. Everything is settled when the vice president steps in to marry the girl under the rule that if the president is unable to complete a duty, it will be done by the vice president. Silly, absolutely.
The show was helped immeasurably by the score written by George and Ira Gershwin. One song went, “Who cares what banks fail in Yonkers, long as you’ve got a kiss that conquers.” Now that is great satire, and it held up all the way through. There have not been very many movies that attempt to satirize politicians, and most are very partisan and usually disappear quickly.
This movie avoids that. Although it is clear where the hearts of the producers are (real broadcasters are used, but only from MSNBC and CNN), but the on-screen battle is not a liberal vs. conservative argument as much as a chance to poke fun at the system itself.
The cast is fine, although almost everyone is portrayed as more than a bit of a boob. Ferrell, of course, is great at playing a real idiot, and Galifianakis always delights in being strange. Dylan McDermott is perfect as the absolutely amoral political intriguer who cares nothing at all about his candidates. Lithgow and Aykroyd are appropriately amusing in very simple roles. Sarah Baker was really good as Galifianakis’ wife, and Karen Maruyama stole the movie every time she appeared as a wise-guy maid.
My main objection was the clear idea that the American people are morons. The candidates did bizarre, dumb things. But, somehow, each time they did something wrong, more people liked them. Brady ran an ad boasting of his sexual conquests despite being married, and his popularity rose. Huggins pulled a stunt where he got Brady’s son to call him “dad,” and his popularity jumped. So Brady seduced Huggins’ wife, surreptitiously filming it and putting it on TV to raise his share of the vote, and then Huggins shot him in the leg, which raised the other man. Yes, many Americans vote incorrectly (defined as those who vote differently from me), but most do it because they actually believe in their candidates. Here, all the voters are idiots.
Even worse, for movie purposes, the movie tries to get noble right at the end, which ruins most of the message. That’s when the film stops being funny. Being truly cynical for 90 minutes and then turning noble ruins the whole joke.
But it is funny for most of its run time. This is definitely not a great comedy, not even a really good one. But there is a lot of good humor, a lot of topical jokes, and it refuses (until the last minutes) to take itself too seriously. It was a pretty decent good time.