America. Jesus. Freedom. It’s a catchphrase that could easily be co-opted at the political conventions that will begin in the United States later this month, where people will dress in silly red-white-and-blue outfits and yell non-sequiturs, just like in a Will Ferrell movie.
In The Campaign, a political parody that is almost as ridiculous as actual American politics, America. Jesus. Freedom. is the slogan of Cam Brady, a Democratic congressman (Farrell), who is facing down an unlikely challenger in rookie Republican rival Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis).
Brady is the stereotypical Liberal disappointment: Drawn into public service for all the right reasons, he has become little more than a haircut and a handshake. He’s about to wrap up his fifth uncontested run for congress in the fictional district of Hammond, North Carolina, when he leaves an explicit message for a mistress on the answering machine of a good Christian family (featuring a cameo by 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer, who I would like to see, just once, play against type).
Marty Huggins, a friendly small town tour guide of proud GOP lineage, is hand-picked as his Republic opponent by the Motch brothers, powerful backroom operatives played by John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd.
It doesn’t matter that Marty is weird, because the fat cats just want a shell candidate to sign-off on opening a Chinese factory in the district, one that will benefit from Communist-backed child labour and good old US-of-A tax breaks, a practice they have dubbed “insourcing.”
Huggins takes to dirty campaigning like an intern to a cigar, but when he is told about his backers’ anti-American plans, he goes all maverick on their asses.
In an age when political scandals are often stranger than fiction, The Campaign could have easily failed, joining a long list of unfunny political comedies, from Dave to Man of the Year.
But the movie has political savvy as well as comedic chops. It’s directed by Jay Roach, the man responsible for HBO’s critically acclaimed docudramas Recount and Game Change. And it’s produced by Adam McKay, Farrell’s long time collaborator, who used to write many of the political sketches on Saturday Night Live.
There is a NAFTA joke that’s actually funny, and the movie highlights backroom antics and pokes fun at the American voter too. When Huggins reads from a grade-school report that Brady wrote about “Rainbow Land,” audience members go ballistic about its implied socialism, with one deranged guy screaming, “I don’t want to live in Rainbow Land, and you can’t make me!”
Sure, there are straight-up sight gags too. A baby gets punched in the face, which is awesome, and the world’s first NC-17 campaign advertisement, which ends with the line “I’m Cam Brady, and I seductively endorse this message.”
Ferrell has made himself into a huge comedy star by creating characters who have both everyman relatability and delusions of grandeur. He plays guys who have wrangled themselves a piece of the American Dream and have coasted on ego and trashtalk ever since. It’s actually amazing more of them haven’t been politicians.
Brady is what you’d get if Ricky Bobby quit the Nascar circuit and ran for office, or Ron Burgundy had a moral conscience.
Galifianakis more than holds his own in his funniest role since The Hangover. His character loosely resembles one he has been doing for years, a lisping, mincing straight guy who the comedian describes as “the effeminate racist.” But Marty is not that guy – he’s a more complete, believable character, unique without being completely unrealistic.
Some of the movie’s best moments are improvised, like an extended bit where Marty can’t open a door, and a scene in which Brady’s campaign manager, played by SNL vet Jason Sudeikis, uses charades to propel the candidate through a public recital of the Lord’s Prayer.
Dylan McDermott also gives a memorable, so-creepy-it’s-funny turn as Tom Wattley, a campaign manager for hire .
When they started shooting, the stars were reportedly afraid certain political scenarios were too outlandish. But you could make a drinking game of spotting the real-life incidents parodied in the film, including a reference to disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner.
America, Jesus, Freedom. If The Campaign was any more timely, the characters would all be eating Chick-Fil-A.