When Jay Roach isn't busy with lowbrow comedies ("Meet the Parents," the "Austin Powers" series), the director has made a name for himself with hard-charging political satire for HBO, "Recount" (2008) and "Game Change" (2012). These were powerful, in part, because they depicted real-life politics that were stranger and funnier than anything mere screenwriters could devise.
Roach tries to meld those two worlds the political and the broadly comic in "The Campaign," a spoof of American politics that, like so many candidates, starts out promising but ends up timid and compromising.
Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a four-term Democratic congressman cruising to easy victory in his North Carolina district until a scandalous voice-mail message, sent when Brady misdialed his mistress and got a Christian family instead, opens up a window for a challenger.
That's when the evil Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) step in. The Motches who, I'm sure, are absolutely nothing like the Koch brothers, who are busy bankrolling every right-wing campaign they can get their hands on want a patsy in Brady's seat who will help them bring back sweatshop regulations to the Tarheel State. They think they've found one in Marty Huggins (Zack Galifianakis), a pug-loving small-town booster whose disappointed daddy (Brian Cox) is a local GOP bigwig.
On their first public meeting, Cam shows Marty how much the newcomer is in over his head. That's when Marty agrees to listen to the Motches' hatchet man, political operative Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), who shows him how to fight politics dirty. Soon, Cam and Marty are on the attack, with dueling campaign ads that get disgustingly personal and are the movie's comic high point, as Ferrell and Galifianakis gleefully sink their teeth into their roles and each other.
Before long, though, Roach and writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell lose their edge. What starts as a pointed assault at corporate money's corrupting influence on politics (thanks, Supreme Court, for the Citizens United decision) turns into a toothless "plague on both your houses" diatribe.
It's the system that's messed up, "The Campaign" tells us, before absolving anyone who might deserve to take the rap for how the system got that way. For all the talk-radio blather about "liberal Hollywood," "The Campaign" shows Hollywood as an institution is strictly bipartisan eager to sell tickets to people of all political stripes, and averse to offending any of them.
A funny satire of American politics that ultimately turns toothless.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Aug. 10.
Rating • R for crude sexual content, language and brief nudity.
Running time • 85 minutes.