Ferrell and Zack Galifianakis play two candidates trading political potshots. Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a horndog congressman whose latest sexual escapades make his safe North Carolina seat a toss-up. Galifianakis ("The Hangover") plays Marty Huggins, a naive small-town booster who's groomed to be a Republican challenger, aided by a shadowy campaign operative (Dylan McDermott), who is bankrolled by a pair of evil industrialist Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd).
"The Campaign" makes some pointed barbs at modern politics so much so that the real-life Koch (pronounced "coke") brothers have complained about the fictional Motch brothers, and Galifianakis' recent comment that the Kochs were "creepy."
But Ferrell insists the first goal is humor, not commentary. "I feel like movies that are quote-unquote 'political satire' are all smart and amusing," Ferrell said but not necessarily gut-busting.
Filming for "The Campaign" took place last winter in New Orleans, while the Republican presidential candidates were tearing each other apart on the pre-primary debate circuit. "We thought, 'This is our movie,'" Ferrell said. "Or, we wondered if we were going far enough."
There was a brief concern that the movie would arrive too late, after people stopped caring about politics. "Luckily, the presidential race is coming to its most combustible point," Ferrell said.
One of the funniest, and most politically astute, roles in "The Campaign" is that of Rose Brady, the ambitious wife of Ferrell's power-grasping character. Rose is portrayed by Katherine LaNasa, a veteran actress who's had regular roles in "Two and a Half Men," "Big Love" and a slew of other movies and TV series. (Before turning to acting, LaNasa's career as a dancer included a stint in 1985-86 with Utah's Ballet West.)
LaNasa said she honed the character while she was shooting another movie in Alaska. "I would watch all the Republican primaries when I was working out," LaNasa said in a phone interview. She also befriended Shannon Moore, an Alaska talk-show host and local arch-nemesis of that state's former governor, Sarah Palin.
"I decided Rose was from Alabama, or south Georgia, very smart but from a redneck middle-class family," LaNasa said. "Then I took some Sarah Palin folksiness, mix it with Hillary Clinton's ambition. And a little 'Dance Moms.'"
The character also contains elements of Cindy McCain, Ann Romney and Anita Perry, the wife of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. For political wives, LaNasa observed, the body language is universal. "They all stand in the back and nod, and there's the way they have their hands on their children," she said.
LaNasa studied the script, but sometimes had to throw it away when working with Ferrell. Several scenes in the movie were ad-libbed, and LaNasa gives as good as she gets in one scene that has Rose and Cam sucking up to some big corporate donors.
LaNasa enjoyed the improvised scenes with Ferrell. "They like it when you can play ball with them," she said.
Making Brady a Democrat and Huggins a Republican is almost beside the point. "The goal was to make them be interchangeable," Ferrell said. "The mudslinging, and the tactics that both sides would engage in, would not be a comment on both sides but on the whole system."
LaNasa agrees that the current system is a mess. "It's very sad," she said. "It's a business. I wish we could come up with better candidates."
Or at least ones who were funny on purpose.
Sean P. Meanswrites the Culture Vulture in daily blog form, at blogs.sltrib.com/vulture.