- - Thursday, August 9, 2012

You have to admire Hollywood’s chutzpah.

The week began with DreamWorks Animation announcing a joint venture with state-owned Chinese partners that will offshore a massive new animation studio in China that will, for starters, produce the next Kung-Fu Panda movie. Jeffrey Katzenberg — who is worth $860 million and is the largest donor to the pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA — negotiated the deal with an assist from Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who helped arrange a meeting between Mr. Katzenberg and the Chinese heir-apparent Xi Jinping. The Katzenberg-Biden deal is now under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission because of allegations that DreamWorks bribed Chinese officials to grease the skids.

The week draws to a close with the Friday opening of a new Will Ferrell vehicle, “The Campaign.” A farce set in the world of electoral politics, it rails against giving American jobs to cheap Chinese laborers, the corrupting influence of money in politics, and the wild world of mega-donors buying and selling candidates like so many stocks.

Are the movie’s nefarious mega-donors stand-ins for corrupt Hollywood moguls? Of course not. They’re named the “Motch brothers,” and they’re stand-ins for the left’s latest boogeyman: the Koch brothers, the billionaire industrialists who have contributed heavily to libertarian-conservative advocacy groups.

Make no mistake: “The Campaign” is laugh-out-loud funny for much of its 84 minutes. The film opens as faux-populist Democratic Rep. Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) takes a dive in the polls following a series of gaffes. Hoping to capitalize on his vulnerability, the devious Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) plot to fund an incompetent Republican challenger (Zach Galifianakis) who will do their bidding and allow the building of Chinese factories on American soil staffed with sub-minimum-wage Chinese labor.

“The Campaign” revels in cynicism, going for cheap but effective jokes about the asininity of modern campaigning: the rote flattery of constituent groups; the hard-hitting-but-empty-headed campaign commercials; the sweet nothings uttered on the campaign trail and during debates in lieu of real ideas.

Unfortunately, it lacks the courage of its cynicism, choosing to indulge in a jarring, late-final-reel civics lesson about the evils of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling and the need for representatives who care about their hometowns. Not only does the film lack any standing to moralize about (conservative, corporate) money in politics — or anything else — its climactic sermon is all a bit on the nose and shows a distinct lack of respect for the audience’s ability to discern the film’s already-unsubtle messaging.

Speaking of disrespecting the audience, it will be interesting to see how this film plays in the key swing state of North Carolina, where every voter is depicted as a hickish bumpkin who can be fooled into voting for whichever candidate runs the last campaign commercial proclaiming the greatness of “America, Jesus, and Freedom.” You’d think that Hollywood learned not to insult the voting public after the debacle that was “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Michael Moore’s anti-George W. Bush documentary that some credit for revitalizing depressed GOP voters and getting them to the polls.

Mr. Ferrell turns in his funniest performance since 2008’s “Step Brothers,” and this film exists in the same absurd space that picture occupied: Kooky and littered with non sequiturs, it’s like a barely recognizable alternate reality in which the rules of common decency and decorum do not exist. Mr. Galifianakis — he of the talking-guinea pig movie “G-Force,” among other pictures — is entertaining as a fey political neophyte who learns that campaigning is a rough-and-tumble business.

The secondary leads are equally entertaining. Dylan McDermott steals the show as a master of the dark political arts, while Jason Sudeikis continues to shine as one of Hollywood’s most promising new comedic lights in his turn as Rep. Brady’s overworked, semi-respectable campaign manager.

If only “The Campaign” weren’t weighed down by hackneyed political cliches about the dangers of (libertarian and conservative) money in politics, it could have emerged as a true classic — a bizarro version of Robert Redford’s “The Candidate,” in which we see the evil of cynicism triumphing over hope and change.

Ah well. Maybe in 2016.

★★

TITLE: “The Campaign”

CREDITS: Directed by Jay Roach; written by Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell

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