There's definitely an incisively funny movie to be made about the insanity of political elections.
The Campaign (* * 1/2 out of four, R, opens Friday) is not that movie.
Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis trade barbs and sling mud, but the humor is inconsistent and the political satire lacks bite. Certainly a movie about a nasty political campaign is timely, but this one degenerates into predictable silliness and occasional raunch.
"It's a mess" is the campaign slogan of Marty Huggins, played by Galifianakis. He's referring to the state of government. But he might as well be describing the movie in which he co-stars.
Huggins is the out-of-nowhere challenger to longtime incumbent Congressman Cam Brady (Ferrell). The two are duking it out over a small North Carolina district.
Brady is the kind of guy who's more concerned with his coiffure than his ideology. He spouts catchphrases that don't add up to a coherent sentence: "America. Jesus. Freedom."
But the married Brady makes a stupid mistake — calling the wrong number and leaving a lewd message for his girlfriend. His poll ratings plummet.
The good-natured Huggins works at the local tourism office and has been a disappointment to his wealthy father (Brian Cox). His influential dad has disreputable ties to the unsavory Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow). They decide Huggins will be the ideal puppet for their dastardly "insourcing" scheme of importing a Chinese sweatshop to their North Carolina district.
Brady has retained his seat over four congressional elections, running unopposed throughout. To call him a lazy, entitled politico is to grossly understate. He's so smug that though he's running on a platform of Christian values, he can't even recite the Lord's Prayer. A scene in which Huggins challenges him and Brady stumbles, making up his own words, is neither comical nor clever.
Huggins starts out with some ideals. But by the end, he's as down, dirty and cutthroat as his slick opponent.
The filmmakers aimed to make a smart sendup of the political process, but The Campaign only occasionally hits its cynical mark.
Some of the best scenes involve Huggins' stylish campaign consultant Tim Wattley, played by Dylan McDermott with impeccable comic timing.
Wattley slithers in to Huggins' modest home, jettisons his beloved pugs and replaces them with a chocolate Lab and golden retriever (tops on America's favorite dog polls) and proceeds to redecorate à la Gaston in Beauty and the Beast with antlers and guns throughout the house.
The film's funniest moment has already been highlighted in the ads. Brady unintentionally socks a baby in the jaw as he and Huggins rush to do their candidates' toadying.
That scene is a hoot, but subversive moments like these are rare in a movie mired in lackluster humor and toothless spoofing.