Will Ferrell seems to channel the hair, accent and wandering penis of John Edwards to play Cam Brady, a Democratic congressional incumbent from North Carolina in The Campaign. Cam, who boasts—as Edwards was wont to do—that his father worked with his hands (although in this case “as a stylist for Vidal Sassoon” rather than as a mill worker) is running for his fifth term. He’s unopposed as usual until a pair of nefarious businessmen (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) with plans to sell the district to the Chinese put forward a puppet candidate, Republican Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis). The race is on.
(SEE: TIME’S take on which 10 of Ferrell’s films are the funniest)
Directed by Jay Roach (of the Fockers franchise), The Campaign itself is mostly but not entirely on. Ferrell and politics have long made a pleasing combination; even people who don’t miss having George W. Bush in office probably miss Ferrell’s impression of the 43rd president, a piece of intuitive comedy that he pulled off gloriously, even though the two men have hardly any physical resemblance. Here Ferrell punches a baby, drives drunk and is bitten by a snake in church—just to give you a sense of the comic tone of The Campaign. He’s consistently very funny, but because Cam isn’t a solid target (despite the superficial comparisons to Edwards), the parody doesn’t have as much oomph as, say, Ferrell’s Bush. It also faces the problem of time. Four minutes of Bush on SNL is just right, but 85-minutes of Cam Brady feels like a lot, even with a strong supporting cast that includes Jason Sudeikis as Cam’s campaign manager and Katherine LaNasa as Cam’s picture-perfect, but mean-as-nails wife.
The Campaign also has to contend with comparisons to contemporary life; even when it goes over the top, it doesn’t feel that far from the current state of affairs, where horny politicians have spectacular meltdowns on a regular basis. The line between parody and reality is already blurred, providing reams of material for the The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. What’s more astonishing comedy gold than Rielle Hunter, New Age videographer to a presidential candidate? In trying to make Cam Brady and Marty Huggins top the real politicos, screenwriters Chris Henchy (The Other Guys) and Shawn Harwell (Eastbound & Down) resort to some cheap shots.
(WATCH: Will Ferrell’s impression of George W. Bush in retirement)
The cheapest is the cloud of homophobia surrounding Galifianakis’ Marty, whose own father (Brian Cox) describes him as a hopeless candidate. You “look like Richard Simmons crapped out a hobbit,” Dad tells Marty. (Dad also directs his Asian housekeeper, played by Karen Maruyama, to talk like an African-American maid that could be out of Gone With the Wind; it’s homey, he thinks.) The mincing effeminate is a Galifianakis staple; he played the same character in Due Date, but without the civic pride that fuels Marty. Here, playing a professional tour guide turned candidate, he is the Corky St. Clair of Hammond, NC, sashaying through town with his twin pugs. But he has a wife (Sarah Baker) and two sons, and the movie doesn’t technically paint him as closeted and gay. Presumably no one associated with creating the characters wanted to go there, to get into such a sticky wicket. But let’s face it, you still get plenty of bang for your homophobic buck with a character everyone assumes is light in his loafers, without the hassle of people accusing you of insensitivity and stereotyping. Consider me here to hassle.
(READ: Joel Stein’s interview with Ferrell and Galifianakis)
Marty’s effeminate characteristics are somewhat suppressed by a shark-like campaign consultant, Tim Wattley (a spot-0n Dylan McDermott) who teaches him to walk and talk “like a man.” Tim makes Marty mimic old Burt Reynold’s movies. He replaces the pugs (since they’re Chinese) with a golden retriever and a chocolate lab named Scout and Sergeant. At the hair salon for a makeover, Tim insists Marty not even wear a pink smock. That’s how fragile Marty’s sexuality, or the perception of it, is. At the preview screening I attended, these jokes generated many of the biggest laughs. I doubt Ferrell or his longtime friend and Anchorman producer Adam McKay had any intention to perpetuate historically ridiculed stereotypes. But the mockery of Marty Huggins does nothing to get rid of them.
I should clarify that the single most crowd-pleasing scene of the movie involves a character from The Artist who shows up when you least expect it. The gag that follows is all about the release of the average moviegoer’s resentment over that arty foreign movie—the one with the dog and the title cards that even had the word art in its title, the one that Marty Huggins probably loved. Having snatched the Oscar out of the proverbial hands of some red-blooded American movie, The Artist is ripe for abuse. Now The Campaign? It’s a red-blooded American movie. It even fizzles to a conclusion in which patriotism and integrity are rewarded and a true bipartisanship is forged. Forgive my cynicism, but the third act of the film, in which a sex tape is used, successfully, as a political advertisement and someone who shoots an opponent with a hunting rifle gets an immediate bump in the polls, was more believable.
READ: TIME’S 2007 profile of Will Ferrell, “Brilliant Idiot”