If "The Ides of March," which appeared in theaters last year, demonstrated some gritty, depressing truths about the political process, in this endless and painful election season it seems perfectly appropriate to observe the other side of the subject in comic form. Certainly the process lends itself to comedy — the recently concluded Republican primary, after all, amounted to something very like a clown show. One candidate responded with "9-9-9" in answer to every question, another claimed that contraception caused illegitimate births, another vowed to make the moon the 51st state, and the eventual winner came down solidly on every side of every issue: what's not to laugh at?
"The Campaign" mines a rich lode of material that, however exaggerated and outrageous, mirrors a good deal of contemporary political history. North Carolina Congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell), about to run unopposed for his fifth term, encounters an opponent, Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), handpicked by the Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), a couple of conservative billionaires, obviously modeled on the Koch brothers. A smug, stupid, narcissistic drunk who sleeps with any attractive woman who supports him, Brady finally exasperates the Motches, his former bankrollers, by mistakenly leaving a sexually explicit message on the answering machine of a deeply religious family, which leads them to mount a campaign against him.
That campaign, in which both men throw quantities of mud at each other and pull every dirty trick in an as-yet-unwritten book, provides most of the laughs in the film. At a "civility lunch" launching the campaign, Brady presents a slide show biography of his opponent that makes him look like a complete fool, and points out that he owns two pugs, unpatriotic "Chinese" dogs. He runs television ads showing Marty as a member of the Taliban and a supporter of Osama Bin Laden. When Marty retaliates with accusations that Brady never attends church, the congressman turns up in a gospel choir, then participates in one of those great Southern traditions, snake handling, a bad idea as it turns out.
The Motch brothers pour buckets of money into Marty's campaign so that they can build factories in the district, where they will employ Chinese workers at Chinese wages — they call it "insourcing." (Mitt Romney would be proud.) They send in a slick political consultant, Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), to remake the tubby, goofy Marty into a product calibrated to please the public — re-landscaping his property, refurnishing his house, replacing his dogs (he advises putting down the pugs humanely) — which increases the nastiness exponentially.
Marty invites Cam to his house for a conciliatory drink, fills him full of bonded bourbon, then tips off the cops about a drunk driver. Cam fights back by seducing Marty's wife, Mitzi (Sarah Baker), recording the action, and sending it out over the Internet; Marty temporarily joins Cam's hunting party and calmly shoots him. After each incident, no matter how outrageous, the poll numbers of each candidate fluctuate wildly, turning what should have been an easy campaign for Brady into a tight race.
The innumerable bizarre escapades and scandals, including Cam punching both a baby and a dog, attract the attention of the national media, whose representatives report breathlessly on all the crazy events, just the sort of material to captivate the usual pontificators. As election day approaches and the media continue their breathless reporting, the candidates engage in some soul searching, which leads to a rather pat and silly solution, subverting the efforts of the Motch brothers, who fix the election to suit their aims.
As "The Campaign" advances swiftly through the escalating incidents it tends to lose its satirical edge and move into sheer farce. Will Ferrell in particular, combining his George W. Bush imitation from "Saturday Night Live" with his Ron Burgundy from "Anchorman," leaps way over the top. While many of the people and enough of the context suggest some connections with one familiar, sordid political story or another, the level of outrageousness blunts the sharpness of the movie's often valid observations. Its energy and its wholehearted commitment to a raunchy, profane, and often ridiculous view of its subject, however, negate most of its silliness and exaggeration; at its best it's a great deal of fun.