By Preston Wilder
It’s a good week for bad dads at the multiplex. The dad in Marrowbone is a force of evil, and reputed to be so cruel that his crimes are “unspeakable”. Mel Gibson’s crimes aren’t unspeakable, in fact they’ve been spoken of ad infinitum – but he brings his real-life rep for anger issues to the role of Kurt in Daddy’s Home 2, father to Dusty (the always-reliable Mark Wahlberg) and a very bad dad indeed. Then again, some may feel that Brad (Will Ferrell), Dusty’s “co-dad”, has an even worse dad, gratingly gushy Don (John Lithgow) who tends to over-share and cry at the drop of a hat. It’s a matter of taste, or perhaps one’s position in the ongoing culture wars.
That last bit makes this rollicking comedy socially relevant – though also quite American, comedy being the most parochial genre in an age of globalisation. (My Cypriot audience clucked audibly when a little girl gets a gun as a Christmas present and uses it to shoot wild turkeys, presumably a familiar rite of passage in many a red state.) Then again, you don’t need polarised US politics to appreciate the contrast between Brad/Don and Dusty/Kurt – it’s the contrast from The Odd Couple, prissy Felix vs slobbish Oscar, or the contrast from Meet the Fockers, the freewheeling Fockers vs whatever Robert De Niro’s uptight family were called. It’s also the contrast between two ideas of masculinity: the sensitive progressive in touch with his feelings, vs the taciturn macho who’d rather die than commit to a hug.
I resisted this film for a long time, partly because it’s a Christmas movie; a Christmas movie during Christmas itself is bad enough (actually, Christmas itself is bad enough) – but a Christmas movie a full month before the event is some kind of peculiar sadism. The seasonal trimmings are indeed unfortunate – but the film is ultimately hard to resist, being a case of some very good actors jumping at the chance to insult each other (or, in the case of the co-dads, suppressing the impulse to insult each other ‘for the sake of the children’). The jokes aren’t great but they never let up, and the cast is game; there are no weak links.
The granddads are both well-cast. Lithgow, with his gentle-giant bearing and mouth seemingly set in a permanent ‘O’, is amusing as the big blob of jelly, with a kiss on the lips for his son and a batch of “special cookies” for the grandkids. Gibson, all bloodshot eyes and inappropriate jokes, lurks on the fringes as a kind of malevolent jester, cackling evilly whenever things go wrong and setting a terrible example for the children (“Know what I mean, kid?” he winks at his grandson after a risqué reference to lovin’ the ladies; “No,” says the kid). Even Ferrell, so often tedious, seems to have raised his game here: his slapstick disasters are amiable, and one mishap – in which a snow plough somehow consumes an entire yard’s worth of Christmas decorations, with Ferrell desperately trying to turn it off – almost literally brings the house down.
Most of the humour is testosterone-laced, of course – though women and children get their own sub-plots, everything coming to a head at a Nativity scene where the whole dysfunctional family explode at each other. A political eye might note that sensitive Don is a former postman while macho Kurt is a famous astronaut; being an angry bastard gets you further in America, though it’s unclear if the film is noting that or actively endorsing it. Even better are the sociological details of life post-divorce and remarriage, with two dads and two houses. “You favour little Griffie over my kids!” accuses Dusty. There are arguments over trips to the aquarium – did the kids really need those blow-up orcas? – and taekwondo classes. A packing snafu leaves a surfeit of undies in one home, and no undies at all in the other.
Yes, I know this is sitcom stuff. The climax of Daddy’s Home 2 takes place at a multiplex-within-the-multiplex where our snowbound heroes watch a Liam Neeson movie and deliver a paean to the big-screen experience – which is weird but appropriate, given how small-screen the rest of it feels. It’s hard to defend this film by quoting its jokes; it’s probably hard to defend it anyway. Yet the jokes are respectable (there’s none of the usual potty humour), and the energy it musters is real; it might be an easy ride for such a good cast, but nobody coasts. The subversive wild card is Gibson, whether decked out in a madman’s beard during the Nativity scene, scowling at the kiddie rails that are now apparently a feature of bowling lanes in America (so the kiddies don’t bowl a gutterball and damage their self-esteem) or meeting Don’s suggestion that he “look into” joining an improv group with a grim “I’d rather look into a loaded gun”. He really is a bad dad.
DIRECTED BY Sean Anders
STARRING Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, John Lithgow
US 2017 100 mins