Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
The Politics of Will Ferrell
August 31, 2012
By Josh Larsen
Some of the most incisive political commentary of this election year has come from an unlikely source: film comedian Will Ferrell.
Known more for onscreen idiocy than civic acuity, Ferrell has nonetheless offered two comedies in 2012 that have resonance for those with an eye on contemporary politics. While Casa de mi Padre, which came out on DVD last month, has sly implications for the immigration debate, The Campaign, currently playing in theaters, is a biting send-up of the lack of civility in the contemporary American electoral process. I dare say you can come away from both crude, R-rated farces enlightened.
An affectionate spoof of Mexican telenovelas and Spaghetti Westerns, Casa de mi Padre stars Ferrell as Armando Alvarez, a dim rancher who finds his simple life in Mexico disrupted with the return of his no-good, drug-dealing brother (Diego Luna). As its title implies, the film is in Spanish, with English subtitles. This may seem matter-of-fact – especially to those of us who frequent subtitled movies – but in another way it’s downright revolutionary.
One persistent, dispiriting aspect of the immigration debate has been the “us-versus-them” dichotomy in which it has taken place. In an essay for Q Ideas, M. Daniel Carroll R. notes how terms such as “invasion,” “rising tide” and “flood” tend to dominate the discussion. Lost in such language are two crucial, even biblical, ideas: recognizing those from outside the United States as sojourners and as neighbors.
Casa de mi Padre is one way of bridging that divide. To be clear, I’m not suggesting the movie represents Mexican culture in a holistic way. Indeed, even though plenty of Hispanics were involved in the picture as producers on down, I’d understand if others decried the film’s indulging in pop-culture stereotypes. And yet, the movie is admirably subversive in its use of language. By putting Spanish in the mouth of one of Hollywood’s biggest comedians for the length of an entire film, countless English-speaking Americans have surreptitiously been exposed to it as a living, breathing, lovely language. (Given Ferrell’s usual demographic, they may be experiencing this for the first time.) In a sly way, and amidst political discourse in which Hispanics and their common language are routinely demonized, that’s radical.
The Campaign is less radical—exposing the hypocrisies of American politicians has been a Hollywood tradition going back at least to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—yet what Ferrell’s latest movie especially hones in on is the lack of civility that has dominated recent elections. Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a smug congressman whose run of unopposed electoral victories is threatened by a new challenger: local oddball Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis). Backed by a party machine and billionaire activists, respectively, these two clowns engage in an increasingly caustic race to represent the great state of North Carolina.
Of course, in an election season when attack ads run rampant and a congressional candidate makes barbaric statements about pregnancy and rape, is it even possible to comedically exaggerate the vindictiveness and buffoonery of contemporary campaigns? Only if you go wildly over the top, which The Campaign does. Cam produces a video biography highlighting Marty’s oddness, including an unhealthy affection for his pet pugs. Marty ducks out of the way during a fistfight so that Cam punches a baby. And yes, there is sabotage-by-sex tape. (If you think that goes too far, remember that the movie is competing with a real world in which a married politician tweets a picture of his crotch.)
Amidst all the goofiness, The Campaign is very wise about the ways we abuse the contemporary electoral process, from the media’s antagonistic framing of politics to candidates pandering for Christian votes. Will Ferrell surely won’t be moderating any of the upcoming presidential debates, and that’s probably for the best. But while pondering our options come November, we could do worse than reflect back on his 2012 films.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”