Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis hold a funhouse mirror up to the American electoral process in The Campaign, a demented political farce that delivers some hearty laughs as the titular race heats up, but sadly loses steam as Election Day draws near. Regardless, it's still fun enough to earn a vote from forgiving comedy fans, because even when it starts to falter, its irreverent evisceration of a deeply flawed system is enough to keep a candidate's smile plastered firmly on our faces.
On the eve of an upcoming election, incumbent congressman Cam Brady (Ferrell) makes a misstep that threatens to end his career in politics. Recognizing the opportunity to gain influence in the aftermath of the public gaffe, wealthy CEOs Glenn (John Lithgow) and Wade Motch (Dan Aykroyd) handpick credulous small-town tourism-center director Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) as Brady's new rival, and they quickly shape the socially awkward misfit into a viable candidate with the help of serpentine campaign manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott). Both determined to win the election at any cost, Brady and Huggins cast ethics aside to engage in the sort of hysterical mudslinging that's sent contemporary politics straight down the toilet.
Front-loaded with outrageous gags as Ferrell's Brady gets himself into a bind and Galifianakis' Huggins gets a crash course in political one-upmanship, The Campaign works best when it's delivering a series of increasingly absurd set pieces that satirize the desperate lengths political hopefuls will go to in order to get votes. With each scene more outrageous than the last, and the two capable stars openly embracing their broad caricatures, writers Chris Henchy (The Other Guys) and Shawn Harwell (Eastbound and Down) pull out all the stops to reveal just how little the whole election process has to do with the actual beliefs of the men who seek office. Still, the focus here is on laughs -- not political deconstruction -- and the relentless blend of sight gags (including an early nip slip that uses partial nudity to expert comic effect), awkward timing, and classic satire (Ferrell does for the Lord's Prayer here what Leslie Nielsen did for the National Anthem in The Naked Gun) gives hope early on that The Campaign will soar to the delirious heights of its rich comic pedigree. But about an hour into the film, as a public debate between Brady and Huggins devolves into a massive brawl, the movie crescendos. And though it doesn't necessarily flatline afterward, The Campaign never quite achieves that level of sustained comic energy again.
Yet even when The Campaign is inconsistent, its blithely cynical observations about the roles of personality and big money in elections still hit the bull's-eye more often than not, and since partisan politics play virtually no role in the proceedings, party affiliations aren't likely to stifle anyone's enjoyment of the film in an election year that promises to be as divisive (if not more so) than any that's come before it. So as civil political discourse has seemingly become a quaint relic of the 20th century, there's certainly something to be said for the role comedy plays in uniting us through laughter.