Sketch comedy artists like Will Ferrell face a challenge when they make the leap to the big screen. Can they come up with an idea that is substantial enough to last the length of a feature film? If they do, can they succeed again?
Steve Martin may have set the bar for this with a string of durable, multifaceted comedies like The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Planes Trains and Automobiles, Roxanne, and L.A. Story… until the 90s, when he started taking roles that demanded little or nothing from him creatively. Chevy Chase delivered an inspired Fletch and the Vacation movies made good use of dopey charisma. But then it was just more of the same, again and again, with diminishing returns. Bill Murray’s movies were hit-and-miss, until his untapped potential as a character actor and a dramatic actor gave him an exciting new career beyond what anybody had anticipated.
Will Ferrell has Bill Murray potential. From Elf to Step Brothers, he’s headlined an impressive list of comedies that have been worth at least a matinee. And in Stranger Than Fiction and Everything Must Go, he’s shown surprising range, developing fuller characters that required much more of him than mere absurdity.
But his crowning achievement remains Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, which has become a sort of cult classic of comedy, and rightly so. It was bound to happen. Will Ferrell’s work on Saturday Night Live created some of the most inspired and hilarious man-child characters in the show’s history. Burgundy brought out his best.
Anchorman also worked because its subject – TV news and the ’70s – was rich with comic potential. It also worked because he had a supporting cast with as talented, if not more talented, than him, and they brought out the best in each other. While much of it appeared to be the fruit of inspired improvisation, that improvisation produced heights of absurdity unlike anything we’d seen since the peak of the Zucker Brothers and Monty Python.
Alas, none of that is the case with Casa de Mi Padre. This movie, directed by newcomer Matt Piedmont, would have made an amusing skit, and perhaps a recurring character on SNL could have found ways to tease good laughs out of it. (After all, there is something absurdly funny about the way Ferrell speaks Spanish with the conviction of a beginner who thinks he sounds convincing.) But even though Ferrell commits as completely to this absurd character as anybody he’s ever played, this 86-minute film feels like two hours. The filmmakers fumble again and again in their uninspired attempts at hilarity. It’s not just boring… it’s frustrating, because we now how much better Ferrell can be when he’s given creative material. Case de Mi Padre had the potential to explore a wild territory of comic absurdity. But it runs out of good ideas fast.
Ferrell plays an idiot named Armando, the son of a rancher who has always felt insecure next to his successful older brother Raul (Diego Luna). When Raul brings a fiancée home, this beauty (Genesis Rodriguez) quickly sympathizes with poor Armando. And as he begins to discover that Raul is involved in the work of the drug lord Onzo (Gael Garcia Bernal), he must decide who to trust, and how to escape the inevitable violence that crooks like Onza bring with them.
Is it supposed to be a spoof of Mexican soap operas? Then what’s with the excess of slow-motion shootings and the fountains of blood? Is it supposed to make fun of a certain period of low-budget Mexican cinema, or cheap Westerns? If so, I’m clearly not part of the target audience.
One of the details that inspired me to take time for this film was the inclusion of Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries) and Luna (The Terminal), who starred together in the celebrated road movie Y Tu Mama Tambien. And they certainly seem game to overplay their stock characters (a drug lord and a dealer). But the film doesn’t only finds a couple of scenes that give them anything interesting to play. Pretty soon, I started projecting my own boredom on to them.
Oh, there are laughs, especially in the first 20 minutes. Most of the film’s best moments involve Armando and his two ranching buddies just passing time, laughing at their own bland chitchat, singing a song at a campfire in a desert populated by the work of taxidermists. I won’t elaborate, in case you do end up seeing this film; you’re going to want to enjoy the laughs when they come. But for the most part, the comedy consists of things we’ve seen before.
Wacky naked love scenes? Top Secret! and The Tall Guy are standard-setting sex-scene spoofs. If you still think the sight of Ferrell’s bare ass is funny, this one may spark a few chuckles, but then it just keeps going and going.
Spoofs of shootouts? You’d do better to revisit Top Secret! again, or Hot Fuzz.
Absurd, hallucinatory dream sequences in which Ferrell dresses up in wild costumes? This movie makes me think that the director said “Let’s come up with some really weird stuff, like you did in Zoolander.”
Making things even more unstable is the film’s preoccupation with bodies being blown to bits by bullets. The running gag of the film’s cheapness, its fake backdrops and stuffed animals, make the carnage seem strangely incongruous. It’s not funny. It’s kind of disturbing.
Okay, I know that what’s funny to some people isn’t funny to others. But certainly we can talk about whether a comedy is creative. This one has a few good ideas, which I happen to think are poorly executed, and it then returns to them again and again. The film’s reliance on stuffed animals for the desert wildlife is funny the first couple of times, but the filmmakers seem to love the idea so much that they spend more and more time on it.
Is Ferrell getting lazy? Is he losing his touch? I’m not sure. Maybe he had a good idea, and it ended up in the hands of the wrong screenwriters and the wrong director. I don’t know, and I’m not sure it’s worth speculating about. Whatever happened, I hope Ferrell sits down and watches this sometime, and I hope he senses how quickly it runs out of fuel as soon as it’s out on the road. I’m sure he has plenty of experience watching SNL skits that never really lived up to their potential.
Those are easy to forgive. But this 86-minute sketch is costing moviegoers around $12 bucks a ticket. They deserve something memorable for that kind of money.