Daddy’s Home: A Dadgum Disappointment, by Ian Brill
In Daddy’s Home, Will Ferrell’s Brad describes Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo as “one of the rare cases where the sequel is better than the original.” Hearing that, I was reminded of Breakin’ star Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones’ comments that Electric Boogaloo was “more of a cartoon” compared to the original Breakin’. That the main character of Daddy’s Home would prefer the sequel says volumes about this film’s approach to comedy, and its quality when compared to The Other Guys.
Daddy’s Home reunites Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, who previously starred in 2010’s The Other Guys. That film was directed by Ferrell’s frequent collaborator Adam McKay. McKay has a producer credit on Daddy’s Home, but this film is directed by Horrible Bosses 2 and That’s My Boy director Sean Anders. While McKay and Ferrell are perfectly in sync with each other and built a film that maximized Ferrell’s gifts while also moved along with a Lethal Weapon-esque buddy cop storyline, Daddy’s Home suffers in comparison to The Other Guys with its use of cartoonish set pieces and simplistic characters.
It’s a shame because the film’s premise seems well-suited for what Ferrell does best. The ultimate Will Ferrell piece is found in the May 5th, 2001 Saturday Night Live sketch “Evil Boss” (sometimes known as “Angry Boss”). Written by McKay, it showcases Ferrell switching between affable office professional and raving madman with ease. The moments of anger reach surreal heights (at one point Chris Parnell arrives with a trident, a precursor to the battle royale in McKay’s Anchorman), but those outsized moments are anchored by Ferrell returning to a carefully constructed “everyman” persona. Witness him declaring “well, I’m a stickler” after stabbing Parnell repeatedly with that trident. The Other Guys transferred the idea of Ferrell playing a buttoned-down, nerdy white guy with a dark side with his character’s pimp backstory. Daddy’s Home features Ferrell as a similar reserved type. His Brad is married to Linda Cardellini’s Sarah and the step-dad to her young son and daughter. Wahlberg is Dusty, Sarah’s first husband and the kids’ biological father. A clear alpha male with his motorcycle and muscles, his arrival should set off Brad’s competitive side and allow him to let loose. Alas, we barely get to see Ferrell, Walhberg, or anyone unleash the comedy beast.
Instead, the film seeks laughs from one of two avenues: moments of (seemingly-improvised) awkward discussions and big visual moments. The latter prove to be the biggest disappointment. Going into the film I was interested to see what Ferrell and Wahlberg would do when freed of the genre conventions of the buddy cop movie. I had hoped that the down to earth storyline would yield more character-based comedy. Instead we get moments such as Brad starting Dusty’s motorcycle and accidentally letting it loose in the house, complete with CGI visuals. In other films (mostly those directed by McKay), there are moments where Ferrell stars in elaborate set pieces, the previously-mentioned battle royale in Anchorman being one of the biggest examples. But the best of those contain a low-budget and mean absurdism. The set pieces in Daddy’s Home aim for these heights, but with a brighter sheen and a lack of meanness or absurdity, in an attempt to fit them into a domestic comedy. The results, such as a skateboarding competition in the backyard’s newly constructed halfpipe, remind me of 90s family comedies like Blank Check. Big and loud, but making sure to never unsettle the audience.
The film fares better when the characters converse. There is a shining moment near the end when Brad, and two other characters played by Hannibal Buress and Thomas Haden Church subvert the usual climactic moments of films, and in instead discuss how unrealistic those moments are. It recalls the best improvised moments of Anchorman as well as the tone of Buress’ stand-up. Elsewhere in the film, Bobby Cannavale appears as a fertility doctor and gets in some nice turns of phrase. I cannot completely hate a film that features Cannavale praising another man’s testicles by calling them “two Patrick Stewarts.”
But even these moments are blunted by the lack of even two-dimensional characterization in the film. In The Other Guys, Wahlberg plays a character frustrated at not being allowed to be the action hero Wahlberg usually plays. In Daddy’s Home, his Dusty faces no real obstructions. Brad is very accommodating to him for most of the film and the lack of conflict leaves the film feeling deflated. I had my fears that film’s story would sentence the incredibly talented Cardellini to the sidelined role of killjoy wife/girlfriend that other talented actresses like Judy Greer and Rachel Harris have had to play. My fears were fully realized and even exacerbated by the fact that her character’s loyalty between the two men seems to shift for the plot’s convenience.
You may have heard of Will Ferrell hitting a cheerleader with a basketball at the Staples Center. That was done for a scene in this film, and it’s the only time we see Ferrell play the dark side that his characters usually contain. It’s a stand-out moment, but mostly for the fact that it finally showcases what many viewers have been waiting for. But even then, it’s too little too late. Daddy’s Home promises a battle between two forms of masculinity and fatherhood, and the implications of that could be fascinating. But what we get is as intense as a sparring match.