Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Campaign (review)

The recent political comedy The Campaign had everything going for it: two great stars (Galifianakis and Ferrel), a great cast of supporting actors (Sudeikis, Lithgow, Aykroyd), and the possibility for political commentary during an election year. It received generally negative (or at least unenthusiastic) reviews from critics, however, scoring a 50% on Metacritic and a 66% on Rotten Tomatoes.*

So what's the problem with The Campaign? Browsing through reviews would give you the impression that the movie either was too long and outstayed its welcome (see reviews in Time, the Arizona Republic, or the Philadelphia Inquirer) or simply wasn't funny (see especially the reviews in the New York Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Washington Post). The highest, most favorable review the movie got according to Metacritic was from Entertainment Weekly, which anyone familiar with that particular film rag knows is never a good sign.

Before I get into my own opinion about the film I'd like to point out that I am far from knowledgeable in the area of comedy. My top 5 favorite comedies are (in no particular order) I Heart Huckabees (2004), Kung Fu Panda (2008), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Be Kind Rewind (2008), and Schizopolis (1996), only two of which (and most likely just Strangelove) actually deserve to be on anyone's top 5 anything.

That said, on a purely stupid, emotional level I loved the film. I thought the jokes were funny and the movie was well paced, despite a slight lack of character development (Why exactly does Galifianakis's character want to get into politics? We don't find out until the very end of the film and there's no foreshadowing for this development). And yet there is something wrong with the movie. Some reviewers hint at what I see as the true problem, but only two that I've read (Village Voice & the Wall Street Journal) come right out and say it: the film may be funny, but as far as actual political commentary goes, the film has basically nothing to say.

This is what I see as The Campaign's greatest failure. The film looks at serious political issues (the preference for saying what the audience wants to hear instead of taking a solid position on issues; the problems created by the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision by the Supreme Court) and instead of offering genuine political commentary it resorts to personal attacks (aimed mainly at Brady) and ends up trivializing the issues it confronts.

One scene in particular is revealing on this issue (and contains no spoilers from what I can tell): Huggins airs a political ad on TV calling for truthfulness. Great, right? I mean, if we could have gotten a little more truthfulness from Romney's campaign about their economic policies maybe he would have been a more reasonable candidate to vote for. But instead what results is a montage of scenes in which the people watching the ad turn to the person next to them and confess a sexual infidelity on their part.

Another scene, which rolls during the credits of the film, depicts the winner of the congressional race denouncing two CEOs (Lithgow & Aykroyd) who have a history of funding political races. Citizens United is even mentioned in this scene! It gets so close to pointing out an actual problem with the contemporary political scene and then what happens? The CEOs are instead brought up on charges of collaborating with a wanted felon. Can the filmmakers not see how this is (as Zizek often says) ideology at its purest? Who cares about Citizens United, we have a crime on our hands!

Even the simple fact that the movie is about two candidates running for state congress instead of for president or at least for national congress seems to trivialize the whole movie.

But the movie was funny, right? So where does this leave us? This is the first review-style analysis I've done about a film, so I'd like to inaugurate (haha political pun) a new, and as far as I can tell unique, dual system of movie rating: Beers vs. Slavojs. I give The Campaign 4 out of 5 Beers for being generally enjoyable and good for an easy laugh, but only 1 out of 5 Slavojs for attempting to confront real political issues but basically falling flat on its face.




*Metacritic averages the actual scores given by, in this case, 35 professional movie critics, while Rotten Tomatoes gives the percentage of their total critics who gave the film greater than a 50% rating.

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