In a summer that has seen a slew of disappointing comedies, “The Campaign” gets it right. Teaming two of today’s funnier actors, Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, this rapid-fire comedy has plenty more hits than misses – and at times a scathing satire of the current election process.
Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a longtime Democratic congressman from North Carolina who comes under fire after an alleged indiscretion is brought to light.
Two wealthy businessmen (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) see this crack as the perfect chance to find a candidate to run against Brady, with the idea of helping that candidate win the election to gain political favors.
They select Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), a naive director of a small-town tourism center. At first, Huggins’ candidacy is seen as no threat at all to Brady’s re-election hopes, but that changes when a slick campaign adviser (Dylan McDermott) enters the picture – helping Huggins reinvent himself and become a dangerous candidate capable of winning.
“The Campaign” was directed by Jay Roach, a solid choice with a résumé that includes the “Austin Powers” comedy trio of films and a pair of HBO political dramas, “Recount” and “Game Change.” Roach strikes a nice balance, allowing his two leads to be over the top, while also presenting a pointed bit of commentary on the political system. Some of the best moments involve some brutally honest – and at times offensive – campaign ads that drive home the absurdity of the whole election process.
Ferrell is essentially playing a variation of his George W. Bush persona during his days on “Saturday Night Live,” while Galifianakis is pretty much doing another version of Alan from “The Hangover” movies – neither is asked to stretch too much. But that familiarity doesn’t hinder the film, with both actors playing off each other quite well.
Even at a mere 85 minutes, “The Campaign” does lose a little steam, especially in a wrap-up that is kind of soft in comparison to the buildup.
There are enough laugh-out-loud moments before that wrap-up to forgive “The Campaign” for its shortcomings. This isn’t a great comedy, but it’s still pretty good.
DVD dandy of the week
This week’s dandy is “Bernie” (A-), the latest from director Richard Linklater (the man behind “Dazed and Confused” and “School of Rock”). This is a little treasure that’s right in Linklater’s wheelhouse, featuring a fantastic performance from Jack Black.
Based on an actual event in the mid-1990s, Black plays the title character – an assistant funeral director in Carthage, Texas, who is loved by all the townspeople. Bernie is active in the local church, is a prominent member in the local theater and goes out of his way to befriend the widows.
Bernie strikes up a friendship with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the town’s wealthiest inhabitant, who is estranged from the rest of her family. Their friendship grows to the point where Bernie is traveling around the country with Marjorie and is also put in charge of her financial affairs.
As Marjorie’s demands on Bernie increase, however, Bernie snaps – resulting in an event that rocks the entire town.
As a Texas native, Linklater makes the most of his roots and captures the small-town feel perfectly. Linklater uses interviews from actual Carthage natives to enhance that authenticity, but the film’s biggest strengths come from Black, MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey as the district attorney who has the unenviable task of convincing a jury that Bernie’s crime should be punished.
MacLaine gives Marjorie much more depth than you might expect, although her transition in the relationship with Bernie shifts a little too abruptly.
But it’s Black that really stands out with a character that plays to his strengths. There is a lot of Black in Bernie, but there is also a lot of Bernie in Black – resulting in a performance that sees Black exhibit much more restraint. Black is charming and likable, to the point where you can almost sympathize with his character – even after he does something that deserves punishment. It is one of the most compelling performances of Black’s career, in one of 2012’s most charming movies (well, as charming as a film that involves a stunning criminal act can be).
“Bernie” is rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief strong language, and will be available Tuesday on DVD.