Will Ferrell has become a kind of comedy Rorschach test over the years. And even among people who "get" him, it can be hit (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) or miss (Semi-Pro).
Somewhere in the middle of the pack is The Campaign, starring Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, a funny-enough comedy about a North Carolina Congressional District race that turns into a bloodsport of mud-slinging.
The problem is that politics, U.S. politics here, is pretty darned funny already. An attack ad in the movie questioning a candidate's patriotism because he owns "Chinese dogs" (pugs) has already been preceded by the real-life crossfire between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama over which presidential candidate committed worse dog-crimes -- Romney, who vacationed with his dog tied to the roof of his car, or Obama, who ate dog during his childhood in Indonesia.
Similarly, many gags in The Campaign are literally hacked from the stand-up comedy we call politics. Early on, Ferrell's character - a kind of persona-mashup combining the coif of John Edwards with the brains of George Bush - says "schools is the backbone of our nation." Dubya, of course, famously asked the question, "Is our children learning?" Ferrell regularly impersonated Bush on Saturday Night Live, so the lifting of material is no accident.
As The Campaign begins, long-term gaffe-prone Democratic Congressman Cam Brady (Ferrell), who has run unchallenged throughout his career, commits one gaffe too many when he accidentally leaves an explicit message for his mistress on a good Christian family's voicemail. As a result, the "fixers" in this Tarheel district -- the billionaire Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) -- decide they need a new "boy." (Reality note: the Motches are thinly-veiled caricatures of the Koch brothers, who bankroll the Tea Party and fundraise for Romney).
Out of seemingly nowhere, they pick Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) to run for the Republicans. The flaky son of a local politico, Marty is a vaguely effeminate family man who runs the town tourist bus. Not to worry. The Motches airlift a vicious campaign manager (Dylan McDermott), who ostensibly created attack ads for the late G.O.P. pitbull Jesse Helms.
Soon Marty is being made over, his pugs are traded for labs and his wife Mitzi (Sarah Baker) gets a Katie Couric haircut. And Marty turns from teddy bear to shark, plying his opponent with drinks during a "truce" meeting and then calling the cops when he gets behind the wheel.
The Campaign has its moments when it pokes at, for example, "stunt" campaign tactics (as when Marty insists in a debate that Cam prove he can recite the Lord's Prayer). And the parade of gaffes has slapstick appeal (though the trailers have already ruined the "baby punch" moment).
Still, The Campaign's effort to remain politically neutral is awkwardly communicated (the more likeable candidate is the Republican, and the only real villain is money). The ending is the kind of cop-out that could never happen on this planet.
And as we said, the movie's best gags have all been told before, and funnier, on the evening news.
This film is rated 14A.