Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Campaign

Why I saw This Movie
          I had never heard of it before the other day, but I was in the video store and I saw it. I like politically humor and I usually like Will - Ferrell.  So I decided to check it out.

The Review
          There’s not a lot of deep political satire in this movie.  Despite one candidate running as a Republican and one candidate running as a Democrat, there’s no attempt to make any sort of partisan political humor.
            What this movie does seek to satirize is:
            1) How political campaigns are completely controlled by big money, and
            2) Because political campaigns are completely controlled by big money, the campaigns are not about issues anymore, but instead about which candidate has the more likeable personality.

            I think both of those presuppositions are true as far as they go, but the question is whether the movie does an intelligent job of satirizing this.  And it does not.
            The plot makes absolutely no sense, and is an insult to the intelligence of the viewer. 

The Plot (such as it is)
            Will Ferrell’s character is a long standing senator, who gets caught in a telephone answering machine sex scandal.  The big money that support his campaign decide he’s finished politically.  (Even though it later becomes clear that in the world of this movie, sex scandals do not hurt a politician’s credibility at all.)  And so they put all their money into creating a rival candidate (played by Zach Galifianakis) who is the director of local tourism and has a personality which is completely unsuited to politics.  (Zach Galifianakis playing the political fish out of water paves the way for a lot of laughs, but plot wise it again makes no sense.  There was no one else in the state they could have found who would have made a more suitable candidate?)
            Then after putting lots of money into Galifianakis campaign, only when he is about to win the election do the evil businessmen finally reveal what they want out of him—they want him to sell his district to China and create Chinese style sweatshops inside his district. 
            (First of all, I’m not an expert, but I believe the job of a congressman is to represent the views of his district on national issues in Washington DC.  I don’t think it is within the power of a congressman to change the local laws within his district, or sell his district to China.  Secondly, what kind of sense does it make for the evil capitalists to pour all this money into Zach Galifianakis campaign without bothering to check first if he is willing to do their evil bidding?  If big money really were this stupid, it would be a non-issue.)
            So then the big money goes back to supporting Will Ferrell’s character.  Which of course begs the question: why didn’t they just do that all along in the first place?

           I know, I know, it’s just supposed to be a dumb comedy and it’s pointless to try and nit-pick the plot like this.  The plot is supposed to be nothing more than a set-up for the jokes.  But I just couldn’t look past all this when I was watching this movie.  You can watch this movie for the jokes, but you can not watch the movie for the plot.
            Nor is it a law of nature that all comedies have to have nonsensical plots.  Superior comedies have a story line that you can get interested in even as they are giving you laughs along the way.

            All that being said, the good news is that despite having a plot that doesn’t make a lick of sense, this is still a fun movie to watch.  There are a lot of scenes in this movie which certainly work comedically, and the ample laughs this movie gave me while I was watching it make me willing to forgive the stupid plot.

            Will Ferrell plays a character which is not all that dissimilar from his caricature of George W. Bush  that he used to do so well.  He says ridiculous things with great conviction.  He’s become so good at playing the crowds that he can get them to cheer for just about anything if he says it right.  (America, freedom, and Jesus, he tells his campaign manager.  I don’t know what it means, but the people sure love it when I say it.) But somewhere along the way he got separated from reality, and now he often doesn’t understand how ridiculous he sounds to other people, and he acts like it’s other people’s fault for not taking his ridiculous statements as serious as he does.  And when he’s in a hole, he just keeps digging himself in deeper and deeper.

            When he accidentally dials the wrong number, and leaves an obscene phone message on a religious family’s answering machine, Will Ferrell attempts to defend himself like this:

            “We can’t have this. It’s a behavior that has to stop.”
            Newspaper reporter: “But congressman, you made the call.”
            Will Ferrell: “I have made in my lifetime probably over one hundred thousand phone calls of which I could say maybe 1 percent have been inappropriate.  What is that, a thousand phone calls?”
            Campaign manager: That is exactly 1000
            Will Ferrell: A thousand phone calls have been rude, inappropriate, sexually explicit.  Phone calls I wish I could take back. But that’s only 1000 out of 100,000. I’ll take those odds any day of the week.

           Sure it’s an exaggeration of the way politicians act, but, as with Ferrell’s old George W. Bush impersonation, it’s only one or two steps removed from reality, and that’s why it’s so funny.
           Sometimes though real life politicians are so stupid that it’s difficult for satire to keep up (W).  In that case all the movie can do is simply replay what has already happened in real life, with Will Ferrell putting his mock serious face over ridiculous events.  So when Will Ferrell brags to his campaign manager about how he just tweeted his mistress a picture of genitalia, he of course acts like there’s nothing wrong with it.  (I CC’d you he says to his campaign manager, over his campaign manager’s protests.)

            The personal attacks between the two candidates also at times seems like just an exaggerated version of real life elections, but it reaches ridiculous proportions, culminating with Will Ferrell’s plan to have sex with his opponents wife, film the act, and then make it into a campaign add and put it on TV.  (I thought the conversation of Will Ferrell’s campaign manager trying to talk him out of this plan was particularly funny.) 
            There are some brief, but funny, cameos by real life news anchors reporting on the bizarre twists of the campaign.  (It’s a small moment, but I liked Joe Scarborough’s  surprised reaction to the news that Will Ferrell had gotten a bump in the polls from having sex with his opponent’s wife on TV.)

            To sum up: this movie may not be very intelligent political comedy, but if you’re in a silly mood it’s worth watching for the laughs, even if it doesn’t make any sense.

           The scene where will Ferrell gets bitten by the snake in the church, and then unleashes a string of profanities, is one of my favorites in the movie.

            Shortly after watching this movie I just happened to come across passages referencing Snake Handling in two separate books I’ve been reading. 
            Coming from the Midwest, I never really thought about Snake Handling churches before, but this movie got the images stuck inn my head.  So when I came across these sections in my reading, I thought, “Oh, of course, the Will Ferrell movie.  That’s where this whole thing came from!”

            In The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible by Robin Lane Fox (A) (book review coming soon), Fox writes:
            Verses 9-20 [From Chapter 16] which now round off the Gospel [of Mark] are plainly a pastiche by some later hand…Here, too, there is a gain in their loss. For these are the verses which make Jesus tell the Apostles that believers “shall take up serpents and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.”  Christians, therefore, could handle what no prudent Jew would touch: not only did their texts of scriptures “defile the hands” but snakes, even, would not bite them. In 1909 these verses so impressed an American Baptist, George Hensley, that he began to handle snakes and pass them to his neighbours at Christian meetings.  Eventually he died of snakebite, but not until the age of seventy-five; his practice persists among the snake-handling Churches of God in Carolina and parts of the American South (p. 144-145).
          On a related note, I’ve also recently been reading The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine  (A) (book review coming soon) who had this to say:

            Mark concludes his book by making Jesus say to his disciples, chap. xvi. ver. 15 “Go ye into all the world and preach to every creature; he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned” (fine Popish stuff, this) “and these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name they shall drive out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover.”
            Now, the bishop, in order to now see if he has all this saving and wonder-working faith, should try those things upon himself. He should take a good dose of arsenic, and if he please, I will send him a rattle snake from America! As for myself, as I believe in God and not at all in Jesus Christ, nor in the books called the scriptures, the experiment does not concern me (From Part III, Section 2.  FULL TEXT HERE)

            Paine, writing in the early 19th Century, could not of course now that in the 20th century some American Christians would actually take him up on his challenge.
            (Wikipedia also has a really interesting article on snake handlers (W)).

Link of the Day

Struggles of the Past

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