According to a quote from presidential candidate Ross Perot at the beginning of The Campaign, “War has rules, mud wrestling has rules… Politics has no rules.”
Screenwriters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell adopt a similar no-rules approach to the haphazard plot of their comedy, vetoing plausibility in favour of garish caricatures, bad taste humour and profanity.
Thus, the sleaziness of a married congressman is established by a scene of the politician romping with a pretty supporter in a pungent portable toilet, screaming at the top of his lungs to the workmen standing outside, “If it’s a rockin’, don’t come a knockin’!”
Incredibly, no one takes out a camera phone to record the illicit liaison then uploads the footage to a video-sharing website.
This is a world in which Big Brother watches only when it suits the film-makers.
The Campaign boasts some decent one-liners – “My heart is beating like a phone book in a dryer” – and a delightful sequence of a candidate attempting to recite the Lord’s Prayer prompted by mimes from his team.
“Lead us not to The Temptations…” he burbles.
But laughs are few and far between.
The buffoon in question is self-serving congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell), who has represented the North California district of Hammond for four terms and is poised to be re-elected unopposed for a fifth stint.
When Cam’s brazen promiscuity finally comes to the attention of voters, power broker siblings Glenn (John Lithgow) and Wade Motch (Dan Aykroyd) throw their support behind a rival candidate: eccentric local tour guide Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis).
Oily campaign manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) descends on Hammond to give Marty, his wife Mitzi (Sarah Baker) and their children (Grant Goodman, Kya Haywood) an extreme makeover.
“I’m here to make you not suck,” growls Tim.
As Marty begins to make inroads into Cam’s voting heartland, tension between the two camps intensifies and the back-stabbing escalates out of control.
Like the political rivals at the heart of the action, The Campaign fails to deliver on its promises.
Ferrell lacks his usual sparkle, while Galifianakis recycles his performance from the 2010 comedy Due Date, replete with canine sidekick.
For every handful of gags that miss their target, the film delivers a chuckle, such as when Marty asks his loved ones for full disclosure of their dark secrets so the family can start the campaign with a clean slate and his sons’ initial mild transgressions (saying the Lord’s name in vain) rapidly degenerate into dark and twisted perversions (performing an indecent act with a goat at a petting zoo).
Marty’s catchphrase pledge to clean up politics – “I’m bringing a broom, because it’s a mess!” – might also be aimed at Jay Roach’s disjointed film.