By Preston Wilder
Will Ferrell has a face you want to punch, with its gormless good cheer and its frizzy curly halo and its features all bunched together – and Will Ferrell gets abused pretty much non-stop in Daddy’s Home, a funny comedy of male insecurity. It’s even funnier because Ferrell masochistically accepts the abuse, whether it comes from his stepchildren, his boss (Thomas Haden Church) or especially the kids’ real dad (Mark Wahlberg) who’s away in some madly hush-hush, terribly dangerous government job, thrills his offspring with occasional phone calls – “Where’s Cameroon?… Is that gunfire?” – then suddenly returns, looking ripped and oozing self-assurance, to engage Will in a winner-take-all daddy contest.
Not directly, of course. That’s part of the fun, that both Mark and Will are passive-aggressive. Will welcomes his rival with open arms, like it says in the step-parenting handbook, and tries to establish “kind but firm boundaries”. Mark urges the kids to respect their stepfather’s rules, “however arbitrary”. Bedtime is a time of one-upmanship, each man bringing his A game: Will’s bedtime stories are trumped by Mark’s bedtime back-scratches, but Will retaliates with bedtime tickles (only for Mark to win the round with the un-trumpable “Who wants 20 bucks?”). Mark wins brownie points by making breakfast, Will politely points out that his cinnamon rolls taste an awful lot like the ones you buy at Cinnabon; “Why thank you,” replies Mark blandly, “what a nice thing to say”.
We haven’t mentioned Linda Cardellini yet, as the woman they both have in common, maybe because she doesn’t feature very much; indeed, the only time her character stirs into life is when the talk turns to having babies. Women are basically breeders here, just like men must be virile: as in The Other Guys, the previous Wahlberg/Ferrell teaming, theirs is a rivalry between the manly man and the over-civilised sissy man – made even more apparent here since Will is firing blanks, the result of an unfortunate mishap in a dentist’s office. The sensitive man is an impotent man, and Will’s sensitivity (he has a tendency to burst into tears) makes him a figure of fun. He advises dialogue when his stepson complains of being bullied at school – but Mark advises an “ass-beating”, and teaches the boy how to throw a punch. The technique turns out to be unnecessary (the ‘bully’ turns out to be a girl), but the advice isn’t seen as inappropriate per se.
Ferrell took some flak for his previous film Get Hard, which was criticised as racist and homophobic – and Daddy’s Home is on much safer ground but it’s still quite conservative (it came out as a Christmas movie in the US), targeted primarily at the increasingly beleaguered white-male audience. One scene, with the young boy at school, seems to be crying out for a gay-couple joke – “Which one’s your dad?”; “They both are!” – but the film doesn’t take the bait, playing for mushy affirmation instead. There’s an African-American character, and he does get some decent laugh-lines – but the main joke, that he keeps calling Will racist when Will was just trying to help, seems to be aimed squarely at frustrated whites living with the constant fear of being called prejudiced.
All this is true; yet the film is funny – especially its first half, when the high concept hasn’t played itself out yet. The gags get increasingly extreme, from a motorbike tearing through the house and crashing onto Will’s car (the car’s flattened roof keeps appearing in later scenes, like Jack Nicholson’s bandaged nose in Chinatown) to a very public meltdown on a basketball court, yet the humour is essentially character-based. Church is hilarious as the belligerent boss at the radio station where Ferrell works, “America’s No. 3 smooth-jazz station”, barely bothering to hide his disdain and muddying the waters with tremendously unhelpful stories about his own life (Will, earnestly: “This story has no relevance to my situation”) – and of course the stars make a great double act, even if nothing here quite matches their ‘lion vs. tuna’ altercation in The Other Guys.
This is not an edgy comedy. There are no jokes about smoking weed, bodily functions or sexual threesomes (which might actually have helped with the plot). Daddy’s Home can be recommended as smart, good-natured fun with a family angle; no more, no less. Our heroes’ suburban problems include picking up the kids from school, joining a line of cars driven by harried parents and having to stay “within the cones”, a line of cones neatly laid out to direct the traffic. Will diligently heeds the cones, Mark gets increasingly frustrated and finally just crashes right through them. Daddy’s Home stays within the cones.
DIRECTED BY Sean Anders
STARRING Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini
US 2015 96 mins