In politics, the wisdom goes, we want a narrative—the one about the shining city on a hill or a town called hope. In comedy, not so much: Director Jay Roach has two brilliant improvisers on hand, but The Campaign suffers from a compounded sense of fatigue, plotwise. First, you’ve seen these characters before, and better: Will Ferrell’s scruples-free North Carolina congressman is a shoutier, sluttier version of his legendary take on Dubya, and no old gag goes unhatched. (Schoolroom grammar errors?) Meanwhile, Zach Galifianakis is getting dangerously close to turning his twittering quasi-prig—here, an underdog contender for office—into a cliché, after two Hangover movies and Due Date.
There’s no suspense, even as Galifianakis’s bone-dry earnestness sometimes kicks the movie into a realm of stealth drama: “It’s a mess,” he declares of D.C. government at a debate, and the message rings true. And that’s the deeper, more discouraging problem—the time is ripe for a seriously funny Tea Party satire, and if these guys can’t do it, who can? The Will Ferrell Talladega Nights formula is beginning to seem watered down; the star is fooling himself if he thinks jokes about campaign-finance reform or Rovian operators are going to juice the tank. So why our leniency with the rating? Any film that features a baby’s jowly face getting punched (in slo-mo) is walking a line that has to be admired.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf