It would be hard to maintain a straight face while attributing a growing political consciousness to the comedian Will Ferrell, but The Campaign follows Ferrell's one-man Broadway show You're Welcome America (in which he played the departing George W. Bush) and 2010's superior The Other Guys in slipping in the odd hard fact and genuine note of satire among the usual gurning, arm-waving and set-wrecking. Here, Ferrell's Cam Brady is a philandering good-ol'-boy Democrat - John Edwards, by any other name - running unopposed for his fifth term in Congress when a pair of rich Republican brothers (an underused Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), with their eyes set on selling off North Carolina to China, bus in their own rival candidate. This is Zach Galifianakis as Marty Huggins, a fey, cardigan-clad tour guide who feels like a live-action equivalent of the "oh no" guy in TV's Family Guy. Thereafter, the tricks get dirtier and dirtier: wife-shagging, baby-punching and hunting "accidents" are all on the agenda.
Anyone expecting the filigreed satire of The Thick of It (or its Stateside spin-off Veep) should look elsewhere, but the leads are plenty predisposed to the kind of rabble-rousing certain American political figures are prone to: they bring a welcome boost of energy to the film's rallies and town-hall meetings, and it's possible Ferrell and Galifianakis got it greenlit just to keep on turning out the kind of mock TV spots that crop up on the former's Funny or Die webhub. (Among the highlights is Bryan's ad casting doubts on his moustachioed opponent: "Is he a Taliban? Is he an Al-Qaeda?") Not all of it is fanciful. The desperate point-scoring rings true, as does the digging-up of a (very) early Brady text (entitled "Rainbowland", and scrawled in nursery-issue wax crayon) to insinuate latent socialist tendencies; Marty Huggins' final apology to the nation even chimes with that of a certain senior Liberal Democrat.
As marshalled by Jay Roach - a safe-handed pro from a pre-Apatow age (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents), who enjoyed an Obama-era bounce with the Palin-spoofing, Emmy-winning HBO feature Game Change - The Campaign prefers plot to improv, working somewhat dutifully through character arcs that tend to limit the laughs in the run-in as everybody makes nice. Still, it manages a lot of swearing (which gets amusingly transgressive when Brady messes with the snakes in a Baptist revival church), the obligatory 1980s pop revival (Heart's "These Dreams", briefly heard blaring from the Brady campaign vehicle), and the now-standard leftfield celebrity cameo, this time of the canine variety. Not first-choice material, by any means, but worth your consideration in a second round of voting - or on DVD, as befits.
The Campaign opens nationwide from Friday.