Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Campaign -- profane politics and people pleasing

Director: Jay Roach, 2012 (R)

The Campaign is raunchy and scatological. In other words, it’s a Will Ferrell film. But it’s one of his better films. In other words, it’s hilarious in places, full of one-liners that come so quickly you’ll miss on the first viewing and have to catch later.

Ferrell plays North Carolina Congressman Cam Brady, a five-term Democratic politician ready to run again, unopposed. Surrounded by his wife Rose (Katherine LaNasa) and two kids, he projects an image of the ideal family man. Yet this appearance is undermined by his desire to bed any good-looking supporter in the crowd. And after he does, he makes a dirty phone call to her but misdials leaving this impolitic message on another person’s answering machine. This causes his political stock to plummet.

He is jaded and cynical . So much so, that he summarizes his campaign platform with three words: “America, Jesus, Freedom.” And he doesn’t really know what any of these mean. They are all just words. To Brady, America is simply his place of employment. Jesus is just a name, not a person. It provides him access to a group of voters, even those who handle snakes (Mk. 16:18). And freedom is a concept he knows little about, since he is captive to the lobbyists who have paid for his electoral wins. As soon as they smell defeat, they cut their losses and leave this loser behind.

These lobbyists, the billionaire Motch brothers Glenn (John Lithgow) and Wade (Dan Ackroyd), need a winning politician they can control so they can bring a sweat-shop factory to North Carolina. With Cam Brady in political hot water, they decide to switch parties and put a Republic candidate up against the incumbent. They choose Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a meek-mannered almost effeminate tour-guide whose father Raymond (Brian Cox) once was a politician.  But Huggins is too nice, with an unphotogenic wife Mitzi (Sarah Baker), and two kids, along with two apparently-unpatriotic Chinese pugs. He is not ready for prime time, so the Motch brothers send in hatchet-man Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) to transform and train Huggins.

The early part of the film focuses on the differences between the two candidates. One, Brady, cares only for himself. He is the consummate politician, pouring out platitudes and lies to eager listeners. He can play the crowd. The other, Huggins, cares about his town and the people. Both are people-pleasers, but in their own very different ways.

The second act gets the politics moving. And politics is dirty business., particularly in this film, going from debate to debacle. Perhaps the funniest scene, seen in the movie trailer, has Brady fighting with Huggins over who will kiss a baby and ends with Brady punching the baby full on the face.

As Huggins transforms into Wattley’s vision of a successful North Carolinian (and Galifianakis is indeed North Carolinian), even his voice changes. But so too does his relationship with his wife. His character arc eventually comes full circle, even impacting Brady, but in a somewhat improbable journey.

One scene summarizes the ethical message of the film. Marty is on a boat while his father is fishing. He has been told he will be the Republican candidate, and he enthusiastically tells his dad, “I’ll make you proud. I will. I’ll make you real proud.” To which his dad responds, “I’d say there’s a mathematically zero chance of that happening.” Talk about popping someone’s balloon!

Marty wanted to please people. But mostly he wanted to please his dad, to make him proud. He had lived his whole life in the shadow of his brother and had received little recognition or approval from his father.

It is natural to want to receive parental approval. When lacking, we resort to trying to please people. But that is a losing game. We can never please everybody. And the Bible tells us we should not try to please people. Rather, we should be “trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts” (1 Thess. 2:4). To the church of Galatia, Paul says: “If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). We need to make God proud, to please him. He is the ultimate Parent whose approval we can and must seek. None other really matters. His is the vote that counts!

The film does not veer to either party. Instead, it chooses to lampoon the whole political process of election campaigning showing it for what it possibly is: full of dirty ads supported by vested businessmen, to elect men that might not even care. But it does deliver on its campaign promise of laughs . . . in plenty. Just don’t expect much more after the votes are all counted!

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs

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