Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Casa de Mi Padre Proves To Be Will Ferrell's Most Absurd Vehicle Yet

It’s been nearly a month since I saw Casa de Mi Padre, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. More on that in a bit, but first I want to offer a preamble.

Will Ferrell, like many comedians, runs hot and cold with audiences. Like Jack Black, Vince Vaughn, Adam Sandler, and so many others, he achieved a high level of stardom by riding a particular shtick. In my estimation, problems usually arise for these comedians due to the same reasons:

  • Audiences begin growing tired of the shtick, complaining, “(insert name here) always plays the same role, and it’s getting old.”
  • Attempts to broaden range with more interesting projects fail – the performer is not accepted in a change-of-pace role, the film does poorly, the film alienates the core audience, or a combination of all three.
  • This often results in the comedian limping back to their comedy safe haven, reputation diminished. They become complacent, their edge gets neutered, and they begin making lazy comedies even their staunchest defenders revile.
This scenario is a little generalized, but it’s a pretty succinct explanation for why the reputations of film comedians often go south, especially with more discerning audiences. For some of these guys, I think it’s a pretty fair assessment – for instance, Adam Sandler has sort of gone off the deep end with his latest output and is the text book case of this problem. I don’t know his thought process and don’t mean to be presumptuous, but it seems like he’s gotten to the point of “who gives a shit?” and is now content just to have a good time making mediocre movies with his buddies. As a fan of his talent, I don’t like it, but it’s hard to blame him if this is the case. After all, who wouldn’t take multiple millions to goof off with their pals?

This brings me back to Ferrell. He’s another comedian who doesn’t seem to give a shit, but with him, it’s a “don’t give a shit” I can get behind. Although some have grown sick of him, Ferrell has lost none of his edge. If anything, the guy has gotten bolder as his career has progressed. In his films, plot is often secondary, if not tertiary; instead the focus is on comedy and an unwavering commitment to absurdism.

This commitment to the absurd has never been more evident than with Casa de Mi Padre, a bizarre and loving recreation of Grindhouse Mexican imports. The film, which costars famed Spanish collaborators and pals Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna (a nice touch), is almost entirely in Spanish. It focuses on Armando Alvarez, an upright Mexican who has worked on his fathers ranch his entire life. When his brother Raul (Luna), the prodigal son despite his involvement in drug running, returns to the ranch with a new fiancee named Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez), a feud breaks out wth a drug lord known as Onza (Bernal). Meanwhile, Alvarez deals with a dark past, pressure from the authorities (allowing for some deadpan work from Nick Offerman), and his growing feelings for Sonia.

As in most Ferrell films, the plot is silly, clichéd and beside the point. But, unlike many of his entries, jokes are infrequent, almost by design. The comedy largely comes from the film’s commitment to playing with the Grindhouse experience – the melodrama is totally ham-fisted and exposition loaded, and yet infused with self aware sincerity (if that’s possible); the desert locale features cheap props and a fearsome white cat that is merely a puppet; the scenery whizzing by in driving sequences is clearly on a rear screen projector; there are skips at the end of scenes that hint at a bad film splicing and in one scene that cuts in close to a character’s sunglasses, you can see film crew members in the reflection; a climatic action scene is not shown, and in it’s place we get an explanation from a camera operator in the form of a letter; and crowd scenes are filled in with mannequins (which also feature as body doubles in a sex scene). At the outset, we are even told the film was filmed in Mexico Scope and the copyright is 1970.

Throughout the film, I found myself appreciating the approach, but rarely laughing. I decided that maybe I wasn’t the right audience for this – that it would play better with people who were fans of the old imports it evokes. The audience around me seemede even less amused – a decent amount actually walked out after 15-20 minutes. The consensus currently on Rottentomatoes seems a fair opinion of the film, so I thought I’d share it here: “Thinly written and not as funny as it needs to be, Casa de mi Padre would have worked better as a fake trailer or short film; stretched to feature length, it wears out its welcome far too quickly.”

Yet, in the weeks since, I find myself appreciating the memory of the film more and more. When I describe it to people, I find myself laughing aloud. A lot.

And damn it all, if this isn’t the way the Ferrell movie experience usually seems to go. Generally, comedies play well on first viewing in a big theater, but as time goes on, they grow stale. Most of Ferrell’s films are the exact opposite. Many people I know didn’t enjoy Anchorman, Talladega Nights, or Step Brothers, the first time they saw them, but on repeated viewings they have grown to forgive the obvious plot mechanics and love the weirdness. I enjoyed them all the first go around, but love them even more now.

I’m not sure Casa de Mi Padre will follow a similar path with the general populous. I think there are many people who would never like this film, no matter how many times they saw it. In addition to the subtitle hurdle, it’s just too weird, too particular in its orientation to gain widespread adoration. For that reason, I don’t foresee it reaching the same pedestal of an Anchorman or a Step Brothers, and yet, I still respect it, and even more, I respect Ferrell for making it. He had to know the audience for this was small and that there could be some fallout for putting it other there, but ultimately he decided he didn’t give a shit.

I think that’s pretty cool.

A note on the film’s theatrical release: I love that Lionsgate and Ferrell had the balls to release this in theaters, but I think it was probably the wrong move. A theatrical release brings certain expectations, and I think it stacked the deck against the movie. I still expect it will become a cult favorite at some point, but I think that type of love would’ve been expedited if they had released the film online through Funny Or Die as a four-part web series (following the approach of a Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog). In that way, the film would’ve come across as a hip experiment without alienating Ferrell’s more mainstream fans or exposing him to the scrutiny of a theatrical flop.