The Campaign (B)
U.S.: Jay Roach, 2012, Warner Home Video
Jay Roach's The Campaign, which is just a script or two shy of being a hilarious American political satire, imagines a no-holds-barred North Carolina congressional campaign in which unzipped right-wing Democrat Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) runs against doofus right-wing Republican (Zach Galifianakis), and the campaign, fueled by megabucks on both sides -- including seemingly limitless GOP funds from billionaire CEO bullyboys the Motch Brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) -- descends into an orgy of mudslinging, back-stabbing, cheating, corruption, lying, scandals, ineptitude and stupidity. If I didn't see the same kind of stuff all the time on cable TV news (as spun by Fox News on the right, MSNBC on the left, and CNN somewhere in the middle), I'd have thought they were kidding me.
The real life electoral process isn't half as ridiculous and idiotic as what we see in this new comedy by director Roach and writers Chris Henchy (Eastbound and Down) and Shawn Harwell. But it's close.
What does the movie tell us? Campaigns are multimillion-dollar hatchet jobs. Elections are rigged. The electorate is hoodwinked. Politicians are or can be outrageous liars and corrupt double-dealers and flip-flopping phonies. Billionaire CEO's buy politicians and Supreme Courts seal the deals.
The Campaign begins with an outrageous gaffe by Ferrell's smiley but too-arrogant Cam Brady, who gets tripped up, sexually, by his own cell phone camera, and alienates the Motch Brothers with an embarrassing message. This obscene miscue transforms what would have been a sure, uncontested race for Cam's fifth term, dominated by Cam's sure-fire slogan ("America, Jesus, Freedom") to a Motch-backed assault by a new candidate hand-picked and financed by the Motches. That tea party dark horse is the shy, effeminate, mustached Marty Huggins, who works at the local tourism center, is scorned by his hardcore Republican daddy, Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox, seething as only he can seethe) and has a nice but rather chubby little family, mothered by wifey Mitzi (Sarah Barker) -- and the personality of a 40-year-old altar boy who builds model robots on the side.
Marty is humbled. His dad is flabbergasted. Apparently the Motch Brothers feel that their money can buy anything, including congressional districts and part of China -- one of whose businesses they want to import to North Carolina. So, to help their schmo of a candidate and protect their investment, they send Marty over a dark-hearted super-meanie of a political adviser named Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), who looks (and advises) like Karl Rove disguised as Clive Owen, and shows all the political scruples of Joseph Goebbels on a bad day. Cam's manager is Mitch, who looks and talks and acts like Jason Sudeikis.
From then on, Roach and his writers show political campaigns at their nadir, a moral catastrophe turned wild gagfest. The movie achieves perhaps its immoral (if not immortal) climax in the scene where one of the candidates seduces the other's wife, and tapes it and uses it in an attack ad. But there's a topper: the other candidate/cuckold then shoots his horny opponent point-blank with a rifle and gets a bump up in the polls. (Never underestimate the NRA.)
Most of the politicians and others whom we see here are venal or addle-brained. (The media people include Chris Matthews, Wolf Blitzer, Joe Scarborough, Ed Schultz, Dennis Miller, and others playing themselves, or reasonable facsimiles.) Most of the campaign is a farce. It's just a funnier farce than usual, with more expert farceurs.
This is a Will Farrell movie after all -- and a Zach Galifianakis movie too. And, a lot of the time, it's a pretty funny one. The Campaign isn't completely free of the desire to please or semi-please everybody that same vain aspiration that has sabotaged so many recent would-be political comedies. The movie maybe needs a little Dylan McDermott-as-Machiavelli advice itself. It would be better if it got a little meaner, or stayed a little meaner, at times.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (D)
U. S.: Timur Bekmambetov, 2012, 20th Century Fox
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a movie of almost stupefying idiocy. With a straight face, this hopelessly ridiculous movie suggests that history's beloved 16th American president, in the spare time he had left over from running the country and fighting the Civil War, not to mention abolishing slavery, had a secret life in which he pursued vampires with a huge silver ax with James Bond "hidden gun" gimmicks, and chopped their heads off.
Vampires, it seems, had killed Abe's mother and infested America, especially the South, where they lived in bloody plantation mansions, ate their slaves, were in cahoots with Jefferson Davis, and supplied most or all of the Confederate troops at the Battle of Gettysburg -- which was won by Abe when he smelted and sent over enough silver bullets to kill the vast companies of the undead, just in time for the little speech he scribbled down for the occasion.
More shocking revelations await. The ax-swinging Lincoln (played very soberly and seriously by Benjamin Walker) -- who stole his future wife Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from talkative Sen. Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk) -- used to stroll around Springfield and elsewhere, waving his ax and looking for action. And he was schooled in vampire detection and demolition by the legendary Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who picked Abe up in a bar, taught him how to wield his weapon.
Unfortunately, Henry's name has been lost to conventional history, as have the names of Abe's two closest Washington advisers, his boyhood freed-slave pal Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie) and his old general store boss Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson). Both of them took over all presidential counseling duties when the entire cabinet and the White House staff were apparently fired (or revealed as vampires) by Abe shortly into his first term. So too have vanished the names (accursed be their memories!) of Abe's principal scourges in the world of the quick and the undead: fancy-dan vampire muckety-muck Adam (Rufus Sewell), his dominatrix-clad cohort Vadoma (Erin Wasson) and the evil mother-murdering minion Jack Barts (Martin Csokas).
I didn't read the book -- and believe me, I never will -- but it seems to me that the only way you could possibly make an entertaining show out of a title and a concept as dumb as this, is to do it as a five-minute sketch for Saturday Night Live, maybe starring Will Ferrell as Lincoln, Tina Fey as Mary Todd Lincoln and Adam Sandler as Adam, the vampire. Get in and get out, fast. Unfortunately the people who made Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter -- including Grahame-Smith (who also wrote the novel, which probably makes him a repeat offender), most of the actors, and especially director Bekmambetov -- seem to either lack a sense of humor or to have temporarily mislaid it.
Much of the movie is actually played straight, ruinously straight -- just like your average clichéd bad action movie, interspersed with gaudy action scenes. And Walker plays Abe mostly straight too -- as straight as you can play a two fisted, rail-splitting, vampire-bashing Great Emancipator who every once in a while dashes off something like the Gettysburg Address before hopping aboard another train and chopping off another head.