In a perfect world, great comedians would be like the replicants from “Blade Runner”: They’d give us four years of amazing, groundbreaking comedy and then quietly disappear so we wouldn’t have to watch them grow old, lose their edge and eventually become the voice of a sassy donkey in an inexplicably popular series of CGI family comedies.
Nobody really wants to answer this question, but what’s sadder? The fact that John Belushi died at 33? Or that if he lived, he would have cleaned up his act, given us five increasingly unwatchable “Blue Brothers” sequels and would eventually become known as the surly veterinarian who can communicate with his patients through their distressed farts in Columbia-Tri-Star’s popular “Dr. Poolittle” franchise? It’s more interesting to ask ‘what if’ than to experience what actually happened. And it’s sad to see what’s happening to Will Ferrell in “Daddy’s Home,” a watered-down, family-friendly riff on a modern absurdist classic like “Step Brothers.”
In “Daddy’s Home” Ferrell plays Brad Whitaker, the sort of cheerful, beta-male dolt usually played by Ed Helms (Helms was the original choice). Brad recently became a step-father and just as he was about to get his step kids to adjust and finally accept his presence (they stopped drawing pictures of him in which he’s already dead, and started drawing pictures of him in which he’s merely maimed), the children’s absentee biological father Dusty Mayron (Mark Wahlberg) invites himself back into his family’s life with gifts of Cinnabons and blind, feral dogs.
This kicks off a lopsided, passive aggressive pissing contest between the unflappably cool Dusty and the insufferably square Brad that mostly sets up several slapstick heavy scenes that end with Ferrell being humiliated in a way that wouldn’t seem out of place in a bad, late period John Hughes movie.
It would be unfair to claim that some of the best Ferrell movies were made while his frequent collaborator, Adam McKay, was sitting in the director’s chair. Not just because that would overlook films like “Elf” and “Semi-Pro,” but because it would also imply efforts like “Anchorman 2” were anything more than middling.
But much in the same way that “The Campaign” fizzled without McKay’s assured guidance behind the scenes, “Daddy’s Home” feels like a bad knockoff of “The Other Guys” as made by somebody who only glanced at that film’s one-sheet. As directed by Sean Anders, “Daddy’s Home” is indistinguishable from “Sex Drive,” “Horrible Bosses 2” and the rest of Anders’ comedies, all of which look strangely out of place playing on the big screen instead of their natural habitat: The weekdays at 3 p.m. slot on Comedy Central. The chemistry Ferrell and Wahlberg shared in “The Other Guys” is off in “Daddy’s Home” with both actors seemingly bored or uncomfortable with the constraints of their characters. Particularly Wahlberg, whose character’s motivation and personality changes whenever it’s convenient for the movie. Is he a deadbeat dad? A manipulative con man? Or some kind of infallible but strangely oblivious naïf?
“Daddy’s Home” never makes up its mind. Linda Cardellini seems equally uncomfortable playing the kind of glowering wife role rarely seen outside of a Happy Madison production. But apart from performances the film just isn’t very funny.
Too often the movie relies a bit too easily on creaky targets like Kenny G., dick jokes and the sound of a little girl calling somebody a bitch. On the plus side, there are occasional glimpses of the weirder film that “Daddy’s Home” could have been. Hannibal Buress basically plays himself as a laidback weirdo who insinuates his way into becoming a part of Brad’s extended family and seemingly improvises most of the film’s better lines (like, “Well, thank you for your wishing of luck!”).
There’s also a throwaway moment where it’s revealed that Dusty has a very intense interest in the movie “Frozen.”
“Daddy’s Home” isn’t exactly a bad film. It’s just a blah film. Like a set of keys jangling above a newborn’s head, “Daddy’s Home” is no better than a momentary distraction. The movie serves as a reminder that comedians don’t have to die at the peak of their fame; just go live off the grid in a cabin until Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino has a role for them. That’s all.
Mike Sullivan is a movie reviewer for Weekender. Movie reviews appear weekly in Weekender.
Starring: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini
Director: Sean Anders
Weekender Rating: WW
Length: 156 min