By Ed Symkus
If, as the saying goes, timing really is everything, this film is gonna rake in the bucks, and will end up being the biggest comedy of the summer. It’s about politics – incredibly dirty politics, fueled by increasingly nasty TV ads that are funded by political action committees that are run by people who will do anything – ANYTHING – to win.
If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because your TV is on right now, and a presidential election ad is running. But thankfully, this isn’t about Washington. This is about a congressional campaign in small-town North Carolina. The incumbent congressman, Cam Brady (Will Ferrell), is doing just fine. He’s a happy family man, he gives great stump speeches, he’s adored by his public. Oh, and he has groupies that he doesn’t exactly ignore. And he has the shady powerbroker Motch brothers (John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd) behind him, ready to make or break anyone of their choosing.
It’s time, they believe, to break Cam Brady. And they decide to do it with Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a gentle, naïve, apolitical fellow who runs tours of his little town on usually empty tour buses, and looks to be the kind of guy who will do what he’s told to do.
From there, it’s game on, with Ferrell and Galifianakis, both gifted comic actors who are adept at improvisation (which this film has buckets of), yet can just as easily slow down to reveal a somewhat serious side, then demonstrate how to pull off a completely believable 180-degree character arc.
Cam starts off as a self-centered jerk, imbued with the belief that everything he does is the right thing. Marty also believes in himself, but no one else does, especially his wealthy daddy (Brian Cox), a onetime politician who thinks his son is a fool.
Cam goes home each night to an awful family (the members of which have their own agendas). Marty returns each night to a lovely family (well, let’s just say they’re lovely on the surface).
The candidates’ differences are made even bolder through the eyes and tactics of their campaign managers. Cam’s is Mitch (Jason Sudeikis), a longtime pal who keeps Cam happy while trying to watch his back. Marty’s is Tim (Dylan McDermott), a menacing fellow who’s foisted upon him by the Motch brothers, with orders to increase Marty’s likeability factor … at any cost.
Though the story takes off like a rocket as far as pitting Cam and Marty against each other (they start out with mutual hatred, and escalate from there), first time feature writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell, along with veteran comedy director Jay Roach, joyously litter the film with all kinds of winning distractions, somehow making it bitingly satiric, extremely smart, and just plain stupid all at once.
We’re treated to plenty of casual cursing, questions about what young kids are really listening to on their iPods, a brilliant Temptations sight gag (courtesy of Sudeikis), a stab at racism in a wonderful performance by Karen Maruyama as Mrs. Yao, and something that can only be described as “the nipple scene.”
Yes, the film delves into raunchiness, but never crosses the line into being disgusting or too juvenile.
A nice touch is the addition of some “realism” via cameos by, among other political newsfolk and commentators, Chris Matthews, Wolf Blitzer, Bill Maher, Dennis Miller, Ed Schultz, Lawrence O’Donnell, most of the cast of Morning Joe and, for no understandable reason, Uggie (the dog who stole so many scenes in The Artist).
As the debates between the two guys get looser and nastier, and the TV ads go way past the point of absurdity, the film remains consistently hilarious, albeit going a little overboard and letting a couple of scenes run on too long.
The most credit for making it all work needs to go to Jay Roach, who’s worked both sides of the movie aisle. He directed all three Austin Powers films, and produced Borat. But he also directed and produced the TV movies <it>Recount,<> about the Republicans stealing the 2000 presidential election, and Game Change, about John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate.
Still, whatever he’s learned before that makes this one so good, it’s only going to be helped by the timing of its release, right in the middle of a particularly vicious election season.