“The Campaign,” starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, looked to be setting itself up as a terrible comedy that would leave me cringing in my seat as excruciatingly-long minutes ticked past. This was until I started laughing during the very first scene. Thinking this could just be a fluke, the film continued on, and amazingly so did the laughs. It was no fluke, just another comedy getting short-changed with unfunny, and therefore misleading, trailers.
North Carolina congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is running for his fifth consecutive term unopposed. He’s still making the obligatory campaign stops to gather up support, but without an opponent, his seat is practically guaranteed. However, he still manages to make a pretty big blunder in the form of an inappropriate phone call to a wrong number, which causes two campaign contributors (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) with deep pockets and ulterior motives to find another candidate to support.
Their choice ends up being Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the peculiar manager of a tour guide office. With the help of a campaign manager, Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), not only is Marty’s house given more style, but Marty himself is also transformed into a more confident debater. As the race proceeds, the battle between Cam and Marty becomes more and more vicious as one tries to outdo the other through various tactics, many of which go far beyond the regular mudslinging that we’re used to seeing during election season.
What makes “The Campaign” such a surprise (aside from it being funny), was the fact that Will Ferrell was one of the stars. Given his track record over the last few years, you can probably understand why this would be one of the surprising factors. After making mostly unfunny duds like “The Other Guys,” “Step Brothers,” and “Land of the Lost,” it’s good to see him make a triumphant return to the land of comedy.
Ferrell actually gets a vast majority of the comic material and does a marvelous job with it. One particular scene that had him attempting to recite the Lord’s Prayer practically brought the house down. Galifianakis does get a few amusing moments, but I just don’t find him to be all that funny. He’s actually another reason I’m shocked that this was as funny as it was, given that the films I’ve seen him in are usually lacking laughs (“The Hangover,” “The Hangover II,” and “Due Date.”).
At times, the level of humor does sink to low-brow, and obviously these are the sections that just aren’t funny, but luckily it doesn’t stay down there for long. The film mostly relies on situational humor and word play, which is far funnier than anything from the Sandler level. The parts that aren’t funny include things like when they try to go for shock value by randomly throwing in a few curse words, which just doesn’t work with an audience who are there to attend an R-rated comedy.
The screenplay, and here’s yet another surprise for you, comes from Chris Henchy, co-writer of “The Other Guys” and “Land of the Lost,” and Shawn Harwell, who hadn’t even done a feature film before. It appears that Henchy has finally discovered what humor is with his latest project while Harwell has amazingly done quite well for his first time doing a feature.
The film comes from director Jay Roach, who actually has a filmography filled with pretty good comedies including the “Austin Powers” films and “Dinner for Schmucks.” If I had known it was Roach directing before I walked into the theater, I probably would have been a little more optimistic about its chances of success. He has a talent for picking material that works pretty well.
“The Campaign” is yet another one of those films where I walked in expecting one thing and ended up getting something else entirely. It’s happened a few times before (Roach’s “Dinner for Schmucks” was actually one of those times), but it still manages to surprise me every time it happens. It’s a funny film, made by some who are just getting into comedy, some who are rediscovering what comedy is, and some who never lost sight of what makes the genre work in the first place. 3/4 stars.