As opposed to real political candidates, the ones in "The Campaign" know that they're jokes. Playing rivals for a North Carolina congressional seat, Will Ferrell as horny, good ol' boy incumbent Cam Brady, and Zach Galifianakis as unlikely, effeminate challenger Marty Huggins are more intent on getting laughs than actual votes.
With their Mutt and Jeff differences in stature, Galifianakis proves a worthy rival of Ferrell's genius in this scattershot satire directed by Jay Roach. But with the ultra right-wing billionaire Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) pulling strings behind the scenes, and ruthless campaign manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) orchestrating the action, the movie's fictional campaign looks uncomfortably like the real thing as election day nears.
From kissing babies to liaisons with hookers, from religious posturing to accusations of communist sympathies, the reckless comedy takes aim on every campaign cliche in sight, skewering and trampling them as it goes.
Actual TV pundits including Wolf Blitzer, Piers Morgan, Dennis Miller, Chris Matthews and Bill Maher play themselves, apparently to add a note of veracity to the increasingly shrill turns in the campaign. They're hardly necessary. As the campaign becomes increasingly absurd - from a drunk driving arrest through an "accidental" shooting on a hunting trip to the world's first 30-second pornographic political message - the laughter keeps feeling more strained.
While "The Campaign" covers a comic spectrum from outrageous setups to clever throwaway lines, it never quite lives up to the rich possibilities of its material. Its best running gag is that each time one or the other candidate commits an unthinkably stupid gaffe, his rating goes up in the polls.
As recently demonstrated by George Clooney in "The Ides of March" or Sacha Baron Cohen in "The Dictator," American politics seem like fertile ground for filmmakers but wind up being an elusive target. The problem is that the real thing is both more ridiculous and more heartbreaking than fiction.
Modern campaigning leaves no room for human error from the candidates, and not much more space to prove that they're human at all. Whatever they do is potential fodder for attack ads; red-meat pundits go for the jugular with any misstep.
"The Campaign" cynically observes that lowering the lowest common denominator is the path to victory. For all the technology of a wired world running on a 24-hour news cycle, the end result is a less informed, less engaged electorate that mistakes slogans for facts, propaganda for news and lets demagogues make up our minds for us.
While Ferrell's Cam Brady is a familiar caricature of the out-of-control testosterone that often passes for leadership in our culture, Galifianakis' sincere eccentricity is one-of-a-kind. But the contest is just for show in a P.T. Barnum-inspired political arena up for sale to fanatical real-life billionaires.
While "The Campaign" takes aim on the ruthless realities of modern American politics, by the end it proves too soft-hearted to really deliver the goods. It comes from the laugh-to-keep-from-crying school of comedy - but the laughs turn out to be few and far between, and you feel more like crying at the end.
Luckily, there's been a far better show to watch for the last couple of weeks - the Games of the 30th Olympiad from London. It's impossible to single out a single reason - the inspiring athletes; the historic, eccentric setting; the heart-stopping drama and rich well of emotions; the endless store of stories; the telegenic images - but these were the most satisfying games in recent memory. That they came off without a hitch, much less a tragedy, produced an all-too-brief sense that all is right with the world.
The U.S. dominance in the medal count provided an excuse for the always disproportionate attention paid to our athletes by NBC. But the picture of our culture that emerged from these games was a new one. It was paced by strong women - the fast ones on the track, the tiny ones on the gymnastics mats, the sleek ones in the pool - who had to overcome the added challenges faced by women around the planet to present a new face of America to the rest of the world.
The Olympic Games are about the courage to believe in our higher selves - and the strength and resolve to make them real.
They leave precious little room for doubt, none for cynicism.
They provided welcome relief from "The Campaign" or the real one.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com