Zach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell have become the paunchy, awkward Wayans brothers of American comedic film, broad-stroked and choked up with cheap gags, sweaty and desperate for the audience's love. Their comedic affinity for each other is so pronounced it was only a matter of time before they finally starred together onscreen: In The Campaign, they play small-town North Carolina political candidates bent on utterly destroying each other.
But no matter how obvious the pairing might have seemed during backroom Hollywood meetings, it was a terrible, terrible mistake.
Both Galifianakis and Ferrell play best as comedic foils for the straight men and women of the world. Against the world's harshness, the sadness and anger underlying their mania is allowed to become a deeply empathetic human decency—a justified insanity in the face of the world's bland, unreasonable demands for conformity.
In Elf, the film I still consider to contain Ferrell's best performance, Ferrell's wide-eyed, cheery obliviousness is always both wrong and right, the result of an all-too-human spirit run wild in a world it doesn't quite understand. But the world is always there to rein him back in.
Galifianakis doesn't rein him back in, though. He tries to one-up him. Like two needy over-talkers in the same conversation, Ferrell and Galifianakis engage throughout the film in a kind of scenic tug of war, a nuclear escalation of comedic ADHD that threatens to flatten the entire landscape.
Galifianakis plays his usual brand of effete mental instability as a family-money misfit tapped by evil industrialists (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) to run as Ferrell's opponent. Ferrell's performance, on the other hand, draws from an oddball hodgepodge of past presidents—most notably Bush I and II—melanged together into an aggressively retarded Republican stew. Strange, then, that he plays a Dixiecrat who pals up to Bill Clinton.
And in comedy, as in politics, absolutely no stunt is beyond bounds, from childhood bestiality to Asian women talking in a Southern-mammy dialect to baby-punching. And as in any no-holds-barred political drag-out, everyone loses.
One of the movie's oddest turns, though, is the unhinged comedic effectiveness of Dylan McDermott, best known for his role as a flatlining-yet-hunky lawyer in TV's The Practice. McDermott absolutely revels in his role as a hot-shit, bullying campaign manager, whose job it is to make his candidates "not suck." He's slick and amoral, and a Terminator in his relentlessness. He is also a strangely steadying presence in the film.
Also slick is a role-reversal for Aykroyd, who now essentially is playing the old man from Trading Places who, in the previous movie, ruined his life.
But mostly, I felt it was an inhuman movie that hated me, and hated all of you, and that ham-fisted director Jay Roach condescendingly despises his audience more than any director except maybe Michael Bay. And so I left the theater feeling as if there were no love left in the world. Why must it hurt so? R.
Critic's Grade: D-
SEE IT: The Campaign opens Friday at Lloyd Center, Cedar Hills, Mill Plain, Cornelius, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Stadium 11, Bridgeport, City Center, Division, Evergreen Parkway, Hilltop, Lloyd Mall, Movies On TV, Sherwood, Tigard and Wilsonville.