There’s a reverence we give our American actors who make movies in a foreign tongue. It’s simply expected that performers overseas learn our language; if the Marion Cotillards, Sophia Lorens or Gerard Depardieus want our attention, they’d better talk the talk. But we reserve higher opinions of our nationals that perform in alien-speak, the Jean Sebergs, the Anthony Quinns, the Diana Krugers. “Did you know that she speaks German? Wow, what an actress!” I don’t know if we should revere Will Ferrell for speaking exclusively Spanish in Matt Piedmont’s Casa De Mi Padre (2012), but I do know, and I think Ferrell might have just found out, that comedy is hard enough in your first language.
Ferrell has given us a number of genre spoofs ranging from science-fiction to the cop movie, and he’s now trained his sights on the Mexican Western, the most operatic of horse operas. Everything here is pitched at the level of highest drama in its tale of love and drugs. There’s even a number of musical sequences, one in which Armando (Ferrell) and his rancher friends sing an ode to the mysteries of life, punctuating each puzzle with the refrain, “I do not know,” even as they get more and more obvious. “Why is my bed cold?” they ask scientifically, not existentially. “I do not know! Why does the turtle move so slow? I do not know!”
The story involves the slow-witted Armando and his attempt to redeem his family after his more successful and preferred brother Raul (Diego Luna) gets their father killed because of his dealing with the dangerous drug dealer Onza (Gael García Bernal). There is a woman Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez) pitched between them and some crooked cops and drug enforcement officers and a dream sequence that Buñuel might approve of.
I thought that Ferrell’s style of comedy, which relies heavily on his delivery (often screamed), wouldn’t translate and it doesn’t. The real laughs come from the sly ribbing of the source material. The performances are over the top, the camera zooms in to give us meaningful glances, and Rodriguez spends most of her time turning away from the people she’s speaking to. Wind is often running through her hair, a nuisance if you’re trying to light a cigarette behind her. Armando gets slapped a lot in Casa De Mi Padre by a number of people. Interestingly, the most tender slapping comes from the DEA agent played by Nick Offerman. There is a love scene between Rodriguez and Ferrell that is exclusively interested in the posteriors of the participants, half of which I enjoyed, the other half I could take or leave.
The movie also has fun with the often low budget nature of the movies it’s spoofing. There are pitifully fake jaguars (designed to be pitiful by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop), obvious back screen projection, and actors are forced to say, “It’s beautiful here,” when referring to a stagnant set and matte painting. The violence is cartoonish, often in slow motion and done up with false symbolism. We get an outrageous amount of shells falling on the ground, shots of blood drenching a white rose, and the dying would rather make long speeches (or smoke or drink) with their last breaths than get themselves some help.
Contrast this with another Ferrell project that is supposed to look deliberately low-rent, the distasteful Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (2012), where the joke is that you should thank them for bad quality. Casa De Mi Padre slyly hopes you won’t notice and even apologizes for it as the movie is interrupted for a message from the Second Unit Director that explains that a tremendous sequence was supposed to be included in the movie, but that, for legal reasons, they can’t show it to you.
I didn’t laugh a whole lot but I enjoyed Casa De Mi Padre (it helps that it’s only 80 minutes long). It’s risky, and at a certain point, if the audience accepts that they aren’t watching what has come to be defined as a “Will Ferrell comedy,” they will have a good time. It forgoes a great number of belly laughs in the service of a fully committed spoof. It reminded me of the brilliant Black Dynamite (2009) that was a pure filmmaking comedy, one that was interested in spoofing the look and style of its target (in Dynamite’s case, Blaxploitation) rather than simply setting up skits and bits. In Casa De Mi Padre there is a wonderful wedding sequence with an equally wonderful Spanish version of “Whiter Shade of Pale,” that isn’t funny so much as it’s bizarre. A lot of the movie is like that.
Ferrell, for better or worse, has to be considered the auteur of his movies, and while he’s not central to the success of this one, his presence, like his frame, towers over the others, and it’s unlikely that a movie like this, as inexpensive as it was ($6 million to make it, probably not much more to market and distribute it), probably doesn’t get made without his involvement. He’s got guts, I’ll give him that. “Mexico is not a country for cowards,” we’re told in the movie and the same goes for trying to make people laugh. I don’t know if Casa De Mi Padre is a brave film, but it’s a weird one, an unlikely one, and one that I’m glad got made.