Merlin, Harry Potter and the Great and Powerful Oz - should we add Jay Roach's name to this list of legendary wizards? After all, genuine magic must have been at work behind the scenes of his latest directorial effort, a movie that bravely pairs two acquired, often bitter, tastes and yet goes down as smoothly as a White Russian. Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis can both be insufferable on their own, but placing them in the same movie? It sounds as potentially disastrous as that McCain-Palin ticket, but against the odds, The Campaign meets with modest success by playing beyond its base (specifically, fans of the two comedians).
Roach, the helmer of the acclaimed HBO films Recount and Game Change, goes for broad laughs with his latest political piece, abetted in his goals by scripters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell (both of TV's Eastbound & Down). Set entirely in North Carolina but filmed entirely in Louisiana, this casts Ferrell as Democratic congressman Cam Brady, a four-term incumbent who expects to waltz unopposed to a fifth term. But an adulterous fling has left him vulnerable, leading the powerful kingmakers the Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) to back a challenger who could potentially win the district and thereby allow the Motches to build a Chinese sweat shop on U.S. soil. They choose Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), a naive and mincing nobody who's described by even his own dad (Brian Cox) as "one sorry f--k." The Republican Marty hopes to win so he can genuinely serve his constituents, but it's an uphill battle considering Cam's experience on the campaign trail.
As the dapper yet duplicitous Cam Brady (modeled after John Edwards?), Ferrell is allowed one or two of his patented freak-out scenes but for the most part keeps his over-the-top shtick in check. Yet the real surprise is Galifianakis. An actor who has aggravated me to no end in all of his screen ventures to date (particularly Due Date and, dare I say it, The Hangover and its sequel), he adopts the right delivery tone for Marty Huggins. Whereas Ferrell only gives us a political caricature (not his fault; the role's written that way), Galifianakis allows us to also see the man behind the public front: a sweet, soft-spoken simpleton with a penchant for loud, tacky shirts and calendars featuring animals dressed like humans (his favorite: the giraffe wearing high heels). Those of us who live in the South see this type at least on a weekly basis, which makes the actor's performance all the more endearing and/or annoying.
Despite its reluctance to swim in the dark-comedy waters explored by Tim Robbins' Bob Roberts or Warren Beatty's excellent Bulworth, The Campaign still manages to hit some topical targets. When Cam's decades-old elementary-school project, a picture book about a make-believe place called Rainbowland, is hilariously used by Marty as a way to discredit the congressman ("Sounds Commie to me!" charges Marty), an audience member at the debate starts screaming at Cam, "I won't live in Rainbowland and you can't make me!" - a nonsensical stance frighteningly similar to those seen by Tea Party chowderheads at their infamous rallies. And the burning desire by politicians to be photographed kissing a baby leads to an uproarious bit. Admittedly, it's ruined for those who have seen the film's trailer, but no worries: Another scene features a popular four-legged star, and it's even funnier.
THE BOURNE LEGACY
No Matt Damon? No problem! With the actor having ably tackled the role of Jason Bourne in the trio of films based on Robert Ludlum's best-selling Bourne trilogy - and with attempts at bringing Damon back for a fourth, uncharted Bourne project falling through - the studio has opted to head in another direction with The Bourne Legacy.
To be sure, it's about as useless a sequel as, say, More American Graffiti or The Sting II (yes, those films really do exist), and its sole, cynical purpose is to keep a franchise on life support so as to generate a few more box office dollars before the inevitable flatline. Fortunately, Tony Gilroy, who scripted the Damon Bournes, has remained with the project - he's now writer and director - and his continued involvement at least insures some sort of narrative cohesion.
That's not the case initially, as the film does little to welcome back those folks who don't have the original trilogy in their DVD library: In between scenes introducing us to the character of covert operative Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), there's much talk regarding the concurrent actions of Bourne himself, and viewers might need to acclimate themselves to the info overload concerning Treadstone, Pam Landy, Noah Vosen and other keywords that would draw up the series in a Google search. Eventually, the movie settles down and focuses on the efforts of Cross to evade a government that now views him as expendable; his only ally is Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a scientist who finds herself similarly disposable. Thanks to Weisz's performance, her character becomes the audience surrogate more than Renner's impenetrable Aaron Cross, who isn't given enough dimension to emerge from Jason Bourne's shadow.
The action sequences, a vivid draw in the other films (particularly The Bourne Ultimatum), run hot-and-cold here: A battle inside Marta's home is superbly orchestrated, but a climactic chase through the streets of Manila is overbaked, particularly when one notes that the assassin in pursuit proves to be as indestructible as a T-1000 sent from the future.
It should have been this summer's Julie & Julia or The Devil Wears Prada: a delightful Meryl Streep vehicle inclusive enough to sport a PG-13 rating but specifically geared toward mature moviegoers seeking a respite from blockbusters aimed at younger audiences. Hope Springs even reunites the actress with her Prada director, David Frankel.
Yet despite the star teaming of Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, the picture is a letdown, saved from complete irrelevance by, you guessed it, the superlative turns by the two leads. The premise is more than merely promising, centering on a long-married couple who attempt to salvage their stale relationship by spending a week at an out-of-town counseling retreat. Kay (Streep) is the unhappy one, tired of leading a passion-free life and eager to give the program a chance. Arnold (Jones) is the complacent one, satisfied with his utterly predictable (and utterly dull) existence and prone to complaining nonstop once his wife manages to get him to the seminar. It's a provocative setup, and with the added attraction of Steve Carell as the counselor, it sounds like it can't miss.
Unfortunately, scripter Vanessa Taylor does remarkably little with this choice idea. She neuters Carell with a part that requires no depth or variation - it's the first time I've ever seen this talented comedian rendered dull - and she initially makes Arnold such an unpleasant man that his inevitable about-face feels more than a little forced. That we stick with the character at all is a testament to Jones' acting abilities; Streep's sympathetic spouse means she has an easier time of it, but she still goes beyond the call of script duty to insure that we suffer right alongside this woman.
But the two thespians can only do so much with the frequently clinical dialogue, and the scenes in which the couple try to be intimate (as per the counselor's instructions) are undermined by cheap shots at the notion of old folks getting it on. At least the Viagra cracks are kept to a bare minimum.