On a plane ride a few days ago, I settled in to watch two of the funniest human beings on the planet (Will Farrell and Zach Galafianakis) in a movie directed by the awesomely talented Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents, HBO’s Game Change). All I knew about The Campaign was that it focused on two idiots waging a vicious political campaign against each other.
Would there be an involving, emotionally engaging story like in Elf, or a series of jokey moments (some funny, some not) about people that are hard to really care about, or believe as real (like in Talladega Nights)?
I was hopeful, as Zach’s character received the news from his father that he’s been picked to run for congress against Will’s evil incumbent.
It seemed like it could be shaping up into a workable version of what the Save the Cat books call the “Fool Triumphant” genre. In such movies, a goofy but likable main character is thrust into a world they’re ill-prepared for, with a big challenge. They’re in way over their head, but end up impacting it hugely, finding success, and growing into a more mature and effective version of themselves.
Think Elf, Legally Blonde, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Forrest Gump or Enchanted.
In fact, Blake Snyder even gave this particular type a subgenre called “Political Fool,” which would seem to fit this premise perfectly – with examples like Being There, The Princess Diaries and Dave.
The idea with a “Fool Triumphant” is that you stay in the “fool” main character’s point-of-view throughout. The audience sympathizes with them greatly, as they rise to the challenge of finding their place within an “establishment” that is worldly, jaded, and seemingly more powerful than them.
As in all great stories, it’s an uphill battle for them – exceedingly difficult. Just when they make some bit of progress, a new complication slaps them in the face. They seem to be “losing” for most of the movie.
SPOILER ALERT: The Campaign did not follow this model.
Instead, it did something that a lot of scripts and movies do, which in my opinion, usually compromises audience emotional investment and engagement in the story.
It tried to follow two characters, in a back and forth fashion, without presenting at least one who the audience can wholeheartedly get behind and support, throughout.
Maybe it’s because Will Farrell is the bigger star, and couldn’t just be “second fiddle” as Zach’s adversary throughout the movie. Whatever the reason, The Campaign takes pains to give his very unsympathetic character at least equal time throughout. And it seems to ask the audience to feel for him as Zach, early in Act Two, starts to win by using the kind of dirty tricks suggested by his new campaign manager (played by Dylan McDermott).
But we don’t stay with Zach and see his moral qualms about this. We don’t even sympathize with him as a victim or well-meaning nice guy. Instead, he goes down a steep and sudden moral decline that makes him pretty hard to want to follow.
And while you might sympathize with Will a little bit once things start going wrong for him, his character is such a selfish jerk that it’s pretty hard to care. (Although, of course, he and Zach are both hilarious to watch at times).
So the way I see it, there is no clear main character, and both “candidates” for that role are pretty unsympathetic throughout.
This is not to say that a morally challenged or declining main character can never work in a movie. For instance, an “Out of the Bottle” story like Liar Liar offers an almost total jerk in Jim Carry – but the whole point of the story is to beat up on him, give him a comeuppance, and ultimately “turn him good.”
Rapacious womanizers like Will’s character here also sometimes show up as secondary characters. Vince Vaughn in The Wedding Crashers is a good example. But even there, he’s basically getting beaten up the entire movie. And importantly, he’s not meant to be the main character. Owen Wilson is, and he’s much more relatable. (It helps that he’s up against a real jerk, in Bradley Cooper’s character.)
Perhaps that’s what the makers of The Campaign were going for with Will here. He does have an arc of growth. But for the sake of comedy, they present him as so over-the-top that I found it hard to ever buy into him as either real or sympathetic.
And the back-and-forth competition between him and Zach to out-dirty each other makes it hard to really embrace either of them, throughout the second act.
And before you fellow Save the Cat genre fans say, “Maybe it’s a ‘Rite of Passage,’” I would answer with this: it’s true that in a “Rite”, the main character is going down a “wrong road”. They’re typically chasing a goal that we can tell isn’t in their best interest, and won’t work out well. (Such as in The War of the Roses, 10, My Best Friend’s Wedding or An Education.) Kind of like Zach does in The Campaign.
But for that type of movie to be engaging, I believe the main character has to start out very relatable (not “fools” like Zach). And they are reacting to a normal life stage like separation, mid-life, or adolescence. Being made a Congressional candidate by rich manipulators (which is Zach’s situation) doesn’t quite qualify as that. So I think it’s hard to be drawn into his situation, or his response to it.
It may just be my skewed view, but I see this as yet another lesson in how helpful it is to understand and work within one of these ten “genres”. It also supports my belief in the importance of telling a story from the point-of-view of a singular main character, whose situation the audience can deeply care about.
I’m sure some of you might have competing opinions, though. I’d love to hear them! (Agreeing ones are welcome, as well.)
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