‘Daddy’s Home’ is a movie perfectly summed up by its poster. Will Ferrell is an uptight stepfather and Mark Wahlberg is his cool dad competition. You’ve probably already got a pretty good idea of where things will go from there.
This is Family Comedy Plotting 101. However, it’s also been produced under Ferrell’s Gary Sanchez production banner. So every predictable scene in this stock family comedy script has been spruced up with some of the company’s patented absurdist humor. Unlike Adam Sandler, Ferrell never merely phones in these paycheck projects that keep his company afloat. He tries to make ‘Daddy’s Home’ the best generic family comedy it can be, and that is a big relief. It’s still not a great film or even a particularly memorable one, but at least it’s funny and goes through the motions with visible effort from all involved.
Ferrell stars as Brad Whitaker, a Grade A lame-o. He works at a smooth jazz radio station, drives a family sedan with pride, looks forward to PTA obligations, and even puts notes in his kids’ lunches. He’s only their stepdad, though, and is unable to have his own children after a dentist accident. Luckily, he shacked up with Sara (Linda Cardellini) and her two adorable youngsters. Brad tries hard to be the best damn stepdad he can be, but he’s not the actual baby daddy, so there’s a wall. That wall grows in size once the real daddy, Dusty Mayron comes to town. Dusty is played by Mark Wahlberg with all the muscle flexing and aggressively nice guy behavior you can imagine. This puts Brad into a tizzy and brings out the ol’ competition instincts in Dusty. Uh oh, time for some ego-driven attempts to out dad each other!
So yeah… not exactly the most original premise in the world. In fact, it’s all too easy to imagine the embarrassing awful version starring Robin Williams and John Travolta that could have been made 5-10 years ago. Thankfully, that’s not the version we got. No, this is the Will Ferrell version. That means the movie has some actual laughs. From the early setup to the increasingly surreal daddy competition towards the finale, it’s surprising how many jokes land. Credit the extensive rewriting that Ferrell’s team must have put this thing through, as well as the chemistry he has with Walhberg. This is their second comedy together following ‘The Other Guys’, and while neither movie is their best, these stars are just different enough to spark off each other nicely at laugh time.
Director Sean Anders does a nice job of bending reality just enough without tipping over into full-on surrealism. Some gags involving motorcycles crashing impossibly through houses or Dusty’s inappropriate mid-conversation workouts serve up slapstick on the right side of stupid. Likewise, the supporting cast is filled with ringers like Hannibal Buress, Thomas Haden Church and Paul Scheer to keep the oddball improvs coming. Even the corniest scenes tend to come with a certain surreal twist and things get surprisingly filthy within the realms of the PG-13 rating. (A sequence involving Bobby Cannavale’s grabby fertility doctor is a particular highlight.) The cast are juggled well to fit their strengths within the cookie-cutter screenplay. Well, with the lone exception of Linda Cardellini, whose talents are wasted yet again on a boring mom role.
In accordance with family comedy tradition, the third act gradually transitions into pure schmaltz and cheese, never to return. There are moments early on where it seems like Ferrell and company might have slipped in enough laughs for the movie to appeal to his broader weirdo comedy audience and not just the mom & pop & moppet crowd. That promise disappears depressingly quickly once the morals are laid on thick. Still, the flick is dramatically better than it has any right to be based on the premise. For a movie destined to be watched primarily on airplanes, cable and compromised family movie nights, it’s surprisingly enjoyable and funny.