By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Cam Brady's best political attributes are strong hair, the knack of slipping "America," "Jesus" and "freedom" into any speech, and convincing marginal groups they are the nation's backbone. Oh, and not getting caught cheating on his wife.
His opponent for a North Carolina congressional seat is nerdy Marty Huggins, whose political acumen consists of harping on Washington's mess needing to be cleaned up. How he plans to do that isn't as important to voters as declaring it needs to be done. He's a one-man Tea Party, since Marty isn't a guy anyone wants to hang around.
Neither candidate will attend the National Republican Convention in Tampa but the circus would be much more fun if they did.
Cam and Marty are embroiled in The Campaign, a down and very dirty political affair allowing moviegoers to laugh off their frustrations with the real thing. If you're looking for sharp political satire check the TV listings for Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher. The Campaign is below-the-Beltway humor, stretching obvious targets to raunchy extremes.
Will Ferrell plays Cam as a distant cousin of Ron Burgundy, with vanity in spades and bullish commitment to every stupid thing he says or does. Marty is portrayed by Zach Galifianakis, who as usual does anything to make his character unfunny, then continues doing it until we surrender and laugh. You get what you expect from the two.
That is, with the exception of unbridled improvisation that has been a problem in their past few comedies. Director Jay Roach keeps the ad-libbing carefully measured (or edited out), so fleeting pauses and blank gazes while someone thinks up a gag aren't as noticeable. The script matters to Ferrell and Galifianakis for a change, moving beyond the delusion that everything else they do is hilarious.
Cam is the incumbent, a do-little politician expecting to slide unopposed into another term. That scenario changes with the intrusion of the Motch brothers (John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd), uber-wealthy corporate types hoping to turn this North Carolina district into a Chinese sweatshop. It's neat seeing Aykroyd cast as the kind of rich string-puller he bested in Trading Places, but the subplot doesn't advance beyond that coincidence.
The Motches enlist Marty to run, thinking he'll be the puppet politician they need and pouring $1 million into his campaign chest. They hire slickster Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) as campaign manager, whose priorities are giving Marty a personal and home makeover and making him speak more like a politician should.
Cam faces the challenge with a bag of dirty tricks, from exposing Marty's dweebish private life — he works out at Shapes for Women — to a demeaning seduction of his wife Mitzi (Sarah Baker). Marty pulls a few pranks of his own. Each embarrassment is recorded and edited for fast turnaround as negative TV ads, and the messages these candidates approve are the movie's funniest bits.
The Campaign runs an economical 87 minutes so misfires don't matter, the candidates don't wear out their welcome and truth conquers politics as usual. Why can't life be like the movies?
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.