March 12, 2013

Mexican Will Ferrell Revels In The Weird With CASA DE MI PADRE


"If it sounds Spanish, man, that's what it is.  It's a Spanish movie."

I have a lot of respect for Will Ferrell.  I'll admit that I was pretty hot and cold on the comedian during his Saturday Night Live years.  For example, I was never a fan of his Spartan Cheerleader character, although I think I may be in the minority there.  He had a few years of brief movie cameos, usually ending up as the best five minutes in some middling comedy starring Vince Vaughn and/or a Wilson brother.  Then Anchorman hit audiences like a cultural sledgehammer.  It was an instant classic and lines like "I'm kind of a big deal," or "Milk was a bad choice," were adopted into the lexicon practically overnight.  It's probably the most quotable movie of the past ten years.

And yet, Ferrell spent his career taking some real risks.  Sure he's attempted to replicate the Anchorman formula in stuff like Semi-Pro and Talladega Nights, but he was also one of the better Woody Allen surrogates in Melinda And Melinda.  Ferrell's taken a swing at remaking big-name properties like Bewitched and Land Of The Lost (which is better than you think it is), he's done the quirky indie thing with Everything Must Go and the kinda-great Stranger Than Fiction, and even took a more straight up dramatic role alongside Ed Harris and Zooey Deschanel in Winter Passing.  He's spent time back on the small screen, recurring on comedy giants like 30 Rock, The Office and Eastbound And Down.  He even branched out to viral videos, maintaining a decent presence at Funny Or Die.  And then there was the time he decided to shoot small market commercials for Old Milwaukee:








Yeah, so that happened.

Obviously Ferrell is a comedy titan, but I wanted to spend some time revisiting his resume just to reinforce its incredible variety.  In an age where stars are so preoccupied with maintaining a brand and a performer's popularity and success so often hinge on the box office take from their last film, Ferrell stands apart as a sort of bizarre anomaly.  So far as I can tell, the man operates by one rule: he'll do anything if he thinks it's funny enough.

There's simply no other explanation for Casa de mi Padre, Ferrell's comedic riff on a Spanish language melodrama. While I admit to not being terribly familiar with the genre that he's aping here, that knowledge is hardly necessary to appreciate the comedy.  In fact, it almost feels more like a reaction to the stereotype of these kinds of films, reveling in a set of specific tones and textures and blowing them out in the most over the top way possible.  In fact, it's almost as if we're watching the fever dream of a small child, raised on telenovellas and Mexican cinema.  Instead of playing Cowboys & Indians or Cops & Robbers, Will Ferrell's inner child is playing Rancheros & Narco Trafficantes.

The story itself is your typical hero's journey.  Ferrell plays Armando Alvarez, a Mexican rancher who tends to his father's land and cattle with his two friends Manuel (Adrian Martinez) and Esteban (Efren Rameriez, best known as Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite.)  His father (Pedro Armendariz Jr.) has no respect for Armando, believing him to be a fool and mocking him for his virginity.  Instead, Papa Alvarez dotes on his other son Raul, played by an almost unrecognizable Diego Luna.  Raul appears to be a successful businessman visiting home to introduce his family to his fiance Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez), but in reality Raul's a drug dealer looking to move in on the territory of a local kingpin named La Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal).  Sonia is immediately drawn to Armando, admitting that she's really only with Raul because he stole her away from La Onza, who wants to marry her despite also being her uncle.  Armando is conflicted, wanting to do the right thing and protect Sonia as well as his father's land, but afraid to upset his family and go against his brother.  Eventually he is forced to take up his mother's rifle in order to save the woman he loves and defeat the vile influence of the cartel.

The action is all played fairly straight.  There's no winking at the audience here, no self awareness on the part of any of these characters or the performers.  Yes, Will Ferrell is playing a Mexican, but it's not really part of the joke and, aside from the equivalent of a rancher's tan, it's not like he's performing in brown face.  In fact, he spent time learning to speak Spanish and brings both a kindhearted sweetness and a man-apart conviction to the role.  Genesis Rodriguez is an absolute knockout and she hits just the right frequency as a wild spirit who's in over her head and desperate for a way out.  Luna and Bernal each exist at opposite ends of the drug lord spectrum: Bernal is the viscous gentleman, dressed all in white with a terrific mean streak, while Luna is an earthy, low-end scumball with menacing facial hair and an ever present cigarette dangling from his lips.

When I say "ever present," I mean it literally.  Raul is never not smoking, only discarding a cigarette so he can light another. He even begs Armando for a smoke as he lays dying, which also pays off a running joke where Armando is constantly trying to roll his own cigarettes and failing miserably.  This is the kind of texture I'm talking about, and these kinds of small details serve as the true source of the film's comedy.  And believe me, there's plenty of it.  We get a myriad of sight gags centered around the film's intentionally poor production design and most of them made me laugh out loud.  There are some subtle, purposeful continuity flubs and some weird transitions that look like sloppy edits.  But it doesn't stop there.  For example, almost any time a scene is set out doors, particularly in one location around a pond, the actors are VERY obviously standing on a sound stage filled with artificial shrubbery in front of a painted backdrop.  You can even see the seams in the backdrop where a tree or a mountain doesn't quite line up on either side.  There are multiple scenes driving in a car with the same loop of footage always playing on the green screen behind them.  There's even a scene with Ferrell and Rodriguez talking while on horseback, and the actors are clearly rocking back and forth atop fake horses while the same dinky sapling is wheeled behind them.

Speaking of fake animals, other than a few scenes with real horses, almost every other animal that appears is essentially a stuffed, animatronic creature.  That includes the large white cat who appears to Armando at his hour of need, gives him a psychedelic vision of heroism and inspires him to bring down La Onza once and for all.  At least with the horseback scene there's a half-assed effort to make it look normal, but here it's clearly Will Ferrell and a talking stuffed animal.  (It's worth noting that this scene comes directly after the film stops in its tracks so a letter of apology from the director can scroll across the screen, describing a lost scene involving live coyotes, two Bengal tigers and a lion.  Unfortunately the footage could not be shown because the animals got into some cocaine and, well, you know how that goes...)  Throw in an establishing shot of the town consisting of model and matchbox cars plus a sex scene in which Genesis Rodriguez is occasionally replaced by a mannequin in some shots, and you understand what I mean when I say that the comedy comes not from the story, but from the peculiar execution thereof.

The most impressive aspect of Casa de mi Padre is its ability to mine genuine comedy by poking fun at a marginal film genre without being mean spirited.  It doesn't mock the poor production value and weird musical interludes.  Rather, Ferrell and company embrace the low budget aesthetic and savor every laugh it evokes.  This is a movie that was clearly born from a place of genuine love and sentimentality.  Moreover, you can tell that everyone on that set was 100% in on the joke, likely with Ferrell as the biggest instigator.

Make no mistake, this movie simply wouldn't exist without Will Ferrell.  I continue to enjoy his mainstream work and I'm certainly looking forward to Anchorman 2.  At the same time, I really hope he continues to explore his stranger, more offbeat tastes because when he does, it really does feel like the sky's the limit.  The man will do anything for a laugh.

Even make out with an Asian lady on a bus.



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Title: Casa de mi Padre
Director: Matt Piedmont
Starring: Will Ferrell, Genesis Rodriguez, Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal, Efran Ramirez, Nick Offerman
Year Of Release: 2012
Viewing Method: Netflix (Laptop)