George Bernard Shaw once said: “An election is a moral horror, as bad as a battle except for the blood; a mud bath for every soul concerned in it.”
Anyone who has observed US Elections over the past 24 years will know exactly what he meant.
Candidates for Mayor, Governor, Congress or President are put under the most intense scrutiny – with every flaw, every decision, every slip of the tongue placed under their opponent’s microscope.
In an increasingly hysterical political climate where Fox News and MSNBC pander to Conservative or Liberal prejudices, the facts have become so malleable that candidates and commentators simply fire up their supporters by bending the truth to extraordinary degrees or casting aspersions on their rivals.
And so in the last four years, we have had the rather bizarre birther controversy where right wing Republicans, including Donald Trump, challenged President Obama to produce his birth certificate and prove he was an American.
On the other side of the fence, we have the equally intense focus on President Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney and his tax returns.
American political discourse has become so shrill since Newt Gingrich and Kenneth Starr tried to oust Bill Clinton from the White House that in an editorial this week, the St Louis Post Dispatch blasted MSNBC and Fox News for fuelling division with their partisan and aggressive coverage.
In a piece headlined ‘Screaming at Each Other Won’t Improve Our Democracy,” Republican readers were encouraged to take a blood pressure reading before settling down to watch MSNBC for a few minutes and then to take their blood pressure again.
The editorial board issued the same challenge to Democratic supporters, substituting Fox News for MSNBC and Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly for Lawrence O’Donnell and Rachel Maddow.
Predicting the blood pressure in both cases would rise, the St Louis Dispatch Post lamented: “It will help explain why Americans trust their media less than they ever have in history.
“Gallup says that only 40 per cent of Americans trust the media a fair amount or a great deal. It’s the lowest number since Gallup has been collecting such data.
“Slightly more than 60 percent of Americans, on the other hand, don’t trust the media very much, or not at all. The numbers have been trending this way since 2004.”
Candidates, of course, like to feed notions of bias in the media but voter mistrust is not confined to journalists. More Americans are cynical about their political institutions as well – with Congress and the Supreme Court achieving their lowest ever ratings.
“Yes, the numbers have been creeping up,” St. Louis University political science Professor Ken Warren observed.
“But so have the critical ratings of most of our institutions from the Church to Wall Street to our Presidents. Americans are very angry today.”
The editorial concluded: “This is bad for democracy. And screaming at each other doesn’t help.”
It is in this context that the new Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis comedy, ‘The Campaign’ hits our cinema screens.
The movie is helmed by Jay Roach who’s no stranger to comedy – he directed most of the ‘Austin Powers’ and ‘Meet the Parents’ films.
Roach is also familiar with politics – he was behind HBO’s acclaimed drama ‘Recount’ about the Bush vs Gore tussle over hanging chads in Florida and the Emmy award winning ‘Game Change’ about John McCain and Sarah Palin’s gaffe prone White House campaign.
The director begins ‘The Campaign’ with a quote from former White House candidate Ross Perot: ”War has rules, mud wrestling has rules – politics has no rules” and then gives you everything that was said on the tin.
We are introduced to Will Ferrell’s shallow North Carolina Democratic Congressman, Cam Brady – a cocky, vain, lazy, womanising politician with John Edwards hair who has been coasting it for years and is expecting to go unopposed for a fifth term in the House of Representatives.
However two corrupt industrialist brothers, Glenn and Wade Motch (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) have other ideas and decide to bankroll an apparently hopeless, simple minded, woolly jumper wearing candidate called Marty Huggins (Galifianakis) on the Republican ticket to further their own ends.
Brady gifts the Motch Brothers an opportunity to unleash their candidate by leaving an obscene message to his mistress on the answering machine of a God fearing family – creating a huge scandal in his state.
Despite the storm his behaviour creates, Brady is confident that the scandal will blow over and he will return to Capitol Hill unopposed.
But when Huggins steps up to the plate, he is initially mystified, then outraged and then goes on the offensive – belittling his rival at a ‘Meet the Candidates’ lunch and then savagely trash talking him away from the microphones at the first candidates’ debate in a bid to put him off.
Congressman Brady is quickly knocked off his stride when Huggins unexpectedly outshines him at the debate and in his anger, he accidentally punches a baby while trying to race his rival to the child for a photo op. The incident makes him a national laughing stock.
Huggins, meanwhile, is becoming so polished and ruthless under the harsh regime of a tough campaign manager employed by the Motch Brothers, Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), that his wife, Mitzi (Sarah Baker) barely recognises him anymore.
As he and Brady trade nasty blow after nasty blow, viewers know it is only a matter of time before Huggins realises he is being used as a pawn in a much more sinister game.
The Motch Brothers’ evil plan is to fill their bank accounts by getting Huggins to approve the relocation of a Chinese factory to the Congressional district once he is elected. This will not create jobs locally but will instead involve the importation of cheap Chinese labour too.
Anyone who is familiar with Roach’s comedies knows subtle humour is not his strong suit and so we are bombarded with lots of crude visual gags involving brawling, boozing and bawdy sex.
During the Congressional race, Ferrell’s character becomes so deranged that at one point he achieves more national notoriety by producing the first ever pornographic campaign ad.
Screenwriters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell’s dialogue is unashamedly bawdy – a family dinner table scene where Huggins, just hours after declaring his candidacy, asks his sons to admit to any skeletons in their cupboards descends into disturbing ribaldry.
Henchy, Harwell and Roach are so determined to be politically incorrect, there’s also a scene where Brady struggles to recite The Lord’s Prayer during a debate while his campaign manager Mitch (Jason Sudeikis) tries to mime it. The scene will offend Christians of all denominations.
And that in many ways illustrates the film’s biggest weakness.
Roach and his cast use shock tactics to generate big laughs but they can’t masquerade the thinness of their movie’s message or the silliness of the plot.
It is worth contrasting ‘The Campaign’ to Armando Iannucci’s satirical series about Westminster, ‘The Thick of It’ which is currently on its fourth series on BBC2. It also uses shock tactics and foul language to entertain its audience but there is far more satirical bite to the adventures of Malcolm Tucker, Nicola Murray and the hapless Tory Minister Peter Mannion.
Like Iannucci’s series, ‘The Campaign’ is careful not to take sides (Ferrell’s parody of John Edwards is counterbalanced by the Motch Brothers being a thinly veiled send up of the real life Koch Brothers who have bankrolled several Conservative and Libertarian candidates in the US) but it suffers by comparison because ‘The Thick of It’ is actually believable.
Iannucci and his team consistently and accurately lampoon the vacuous language and trendy policy initiatives of New Labour and the Coalition Government. ’The Campaign’ lampoons the absurdity of political campaigns but goes so over the top it sheds all credibility.
Another major weakness is Roach’s shabby treatment of its women. They are presented either as simple or manipulative and they are often the butt of very cruel sex jokes.
You get what you expect from Ferrell and Galifianakis performs creditably as Huggins.
But where the film really scores is in its supporting cast. Dylan McDermott shows a hitherto unseen gift for comedy, veteran Scottish actor Brian Cox is suitably gruff as Marty Huggins’ bigoted father and John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd turn in the kind of performances we saw from Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy as the Duke Brothers in John Landis’s sharp Wall Street comedy, ‘Trading Places’ (which also featured Aykroyd).
There’s also a nice cameo from ’30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer as a God fearing family man but if anyone steals the movie, it is Karen Maruyama as Cox’s housekeeper.
But for all these minor successes, ‘The Campaign’ is about as enjoyable as a mallet delivered to the groin – an image Jay Roach would, no doubt, think is hilariously funny and try to recreate in his next comedy.
I would suspect ‘The Campaign’s’ OTT, in your face humour will play well with those who enjoyed ‘Taldega Nights’, ‘The Hangover’, ‘Borat’ and ‘Little Fockers’. It is performing well at the US box office.
But if you like your political comedies to have real bite, then check out Tim Robbins’ 1992 mockumentary ‘Bob Roberts’ about a Christian right folk singer who runs for Senate in Pennsylvania with Robbins, Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Rickman and Gore Vidal. That’s real satire.
Maybe we will look back at ‘The Campaign’ and say it was very much of its time.
In an age where US politics is increasingly about megaphone politics, where Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Ed Schultz and Lawrence O’Donnell yell at each other every day over the airwaves, maybe Roach has crafted the perfect movie for the Fox News and MSNBC generation.
Maybe its brash humour is perfect for these brash political times.
‘The Campaign’ opened in the Movie House and other UK and Irish cinemas on September 28, 2012.