1. That The Campaign could never come up with a fictional scenario that would rival the absurdity of what actually happens in our daily political discourse is an obvious point, yet one that needs to be made again nevertheless. Is any sort of shtick that Will Ferrell could dream up odder than a reality in which Newt Gingrich becomes friends with Snooki or a hot-button political debate centers on chicken sandwiches? ProPublica has a consistently hilarious tumblr of every batshit weird statement uttered by public officials and candidates this election season that's considerably funnier than The Campaign because, jeez, how could it not be? You've got Bill Clinton posing with porn stars and presidential candidates saying, "I stand by what I said, whatever it was," and Sen. John McCain co-sponsoring legislation with a giant pink pig. Beat that, Galifianakis.
2. That's to say, with politics in the place it is, who needs satire, really? (The best jokes of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report usually just involve letting the boobs speak for themselves.) So The Campaign was left with two ways to differentiate itself. It could've gone ultra-dark and acerbic with the satire, Armando Iannucci-style, or it could've eliminated any real-world political context whatsoever and just become The Other Guys, except with politicians instead of cops. That's the route The Campaign chose, which is fine enough, one supposes; it's not like we expect Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis to put out a cutting, vicious parable about our rotten political culture on 3,500 screens. But it makes you wonder why they bothered making a political movie in the first place; it might have been more fun if they were just cops.
3. It doesn't matter much: The only real political bit the movie uses is the Ferrell! Versus! Galifianakis! idea, which means we should probably just be thankful they made them politicians rather than boxers. (This at least keeps their shirts on.) Ferrell plays Rep. Cam Brady, a so-obvious-they-probably-should-have-tried-something-else riff on his George W. Bush impersonation with a heavy dollop of Clinton-esque skirt-chasing thrown in. Brady, a Democrat, is usually a shoo-in for his House seat, but the evil Motch brothers (a dopey riff on the Koch brothers played by John Lithgow and a deeply depressing Dan Aykroyd) decide, improbably, to finance Marty Huggins, the lisping, socially awkward son of an old rich political operative, so that they can sell American jobs to China, or something. And that's pretty much the whole deal: The two men take turns humiliating each other and themselves, and at the end people vote.
4. The Campaign is directed by Jay Roach, who also directed the (terrific) HBO movies Recount and Game Change, so I guess I sort of expected a little more political savvy than we get here; it's obvious he's playing dumb on purpose, because those movies showed he knows how to create a convincing political atmosphere. Here, he just relies on his leads to carry the whole movie—as improvised as these movies usually are, this one feels particularly ragged—and I have to say that Galifianakis is more successful than Ferrell. He at least tries to ground Marty in a real, sweet place—he works for the tourism center of his town and loves it, and his family, in a sincere way—which gives him a lot more rope to work with when the movie turns more and more absurd. Ferrell is coasting more here, not really invested in the part and, oddly, sort of bored with the whole thing. Ferrell has attempted to stretch more in recent years, with varying success (Stranger Than Fiction worked, Everything Must Go less so), and he's sort of checked out here, doing Ferrell Schtick more than careering into the land of the blissfully surreal as he does when he's on his game. I think part of the problem here is that neither Ferrell nor Galifianakis recedes, allowing one to be the straight man to the other; the result is that you watch each men do their schtick in a vacuum. They're both occupying their own, different movies.
5. There are still laughs to be had here, if just because of the pure volume of gags. But it's still sort of the low-hanging fruit variety. Galifianakis's sweet-looking children and wife, as it turns out, are secret freaks! Campaign videos are often full of lies! These guys are such bad politicians that they punch babies! (There is a good bit with a Korean maid whose boss makes her speak like the cast of The Help, but the movie goes to the well with it once too often.) You keep waiting for the movie to say something, to find that extra level of inspiration we've seen each of these two guys reach. Or at least to justify making a political comedy in the first place. The Campaign is mild Ferrell and mild Galifianakis, and putting them together leads to diminishing returns for both. A movie like this either needs to keep it small and dark, or just go for it, balls-out surreal. The Campaign, alas, occupies that squishy middle. And seriously: Do not look directly at Dan Aykroyd.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.