Saturday, March 31, 2012

Casa de mi Padre Movie Review

Will Ferrell is a successful sketch and movie comedian because he commits himself to the role one hundred percent and never wavers. I have faulted him in the past for giving too much of a knowing wink to his over the top performances and in his latest it’s the absence of that wink and his usual commitment, this time to the drama, that makes his performance admirable. However, Casa de mi Padre is not a drama. Well, it is in a sense because it’s made completely in the style of Latin American telenovelas combined with low budget Mexican cinema. So it’s a comedy by virtue of the fact that the filmmakers have deliberately set out to parody those styles.

Ferrell plays Armando Alvarez, the idiot son of Mexican rancher Miguel Ernesto (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.), who discovers that his brother Raul (Diego Luna) is involved in the drug trafficking, moving drugs into the United States, where he now resides. The lovely Genesis Rodriguez plays the love interest, a one dimensional character whose sole purpose is to provide the hero’s motivation for acting. One of the funniest gags in the movie is that it’s almost entirely in Spanish with English subtitles. Ferrell gives a performance in a language he’s not even proficient in, surrounded by actors who are. I expected one of the running gags to be his inability to understand what others are saying, but the only reference to his being a non-native speaker of the language is cough-and-you’ll-miss-it joke by Miguel Ernesto about regretting laughing at the funny way Armando speaks. There’s something admirable in the quality of Ferrell’s spoken Spanish, which is actually pretty well pronounced with decent line readings. Some fun is had at the expense of Americans who notoriously butcher other languages by having a DEA agent speak terrible Spanish with absolutely no effort at good pronunciation or inflection.

A great comic star who passes the test is not enough. This film doesn’t have the comic juice to sustain a full 85 minutes of laughs. There are a few good ones, without question, but Casa de mi Padre is essentially a single joke stretched to feature length. It came as no surprise to me to find that the writer, Andrew Steele, and director Matthew Piedmont have both worked as writers on “Saturday Night Live,” the sketch comedy show notorious for beating the dead horse of poorly conceived jokes and then turning them into feature films. As if to remind us of this fact, they went and brought on Molly Shannon for a one-line cameo (albeit a line that elicited a chuckle).

The whole idea that this is a really overwrought melodrama wears thin after about twenty minutes. It then overstays its welcome like a house guest who won’t leave, but who tells the occasional amusing anecdote. The film doesn’t deliver sustained laughs or even consistent ones, but it does manage to pull out a few new tricks through the end, which I suppose offers some encouragement for sticking it out. After the first time an outdoor scene is staged on an obvious sound stage, the joke is finished, but it crops up several more times. The obviously fake dead bodies, animatronic animals, bad makeup and deliberately missing frames of film are barely funny the first time. One thing that left me puzzled is whether the low level Spanish used in the screenplay was done on purpose as another satirical aspect or because Steele’s own Spanish is no better than that of an AP Spanish student. I knew it was not the most complex writing when I realized I didn’t need to rely on the subtitles to understand it. To me, that’s a sign that the sentence structure, vocabulary and use of idioms is elementary.

I spent most of the time thinking about Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, to be honest, because parts of the film reminded me of their self-conscious attempt to recreate the B-movies of the 1970s with the double feature Deathproof and Planet Terror. The way Tarantino has often sought to recreate old B-movie genres in his own image and put a new spin on them made me think he might have been exactly the director to make Casa de mi Padre into not so much comedy as kitschy showpiece.

As much as Ferrell impressed me more than usual, the best actor by far was Gael García Bernal, who plays a rival drug kingpin. The way he uses his body and voice to replicate the gestures and the attitude of those villainous characters had me convinced. He also never plays anything for a laugh, which makes it both dramatic and funny. That right there was one of the oddest sensations I had watching the film. There are long dramatic stretches without any obvious jokes, but we laugh because of how seriously they’re taking it. So we laugh at it in the same way we might laugh if we switched on one of the Spanish language TV channels and started watching a telenovela with our friends. In that respect, you kind of have to ask yourself what the point is then. As such, I’m surprised anyone was willing to finance this film. I don’t know who exactly they think the target audience is. The sad truth is that the vast majority of people (especially among the Will Ferrell crowd) simply won’t watch a subtitled movie. Of those die-hard fans who will sit through it, how many do you think are familiar with the source material being satirized?

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Casa de mi Padre builds a strong cult following and even has more success later through streaming and Blu-Ray. It could end up becoming a kind of Napoleon Dynamite of sorts (and just to remind us of that, Efren Ramirez appears as one of Armando’s ranch hand friends). It’s just offbeat and bizarre enough to succeed on cult appeal alone. But consider yourselves forewarned: you have to sit through some amount of tedium to get to the enjoyment part of it.

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