Casa de Mi Padre (United States, 2012)March 13, 2012
Whatever Will Ferrell may or may not be, one can never accuse him of lacking balls. The decision to release Casa de Mi Padre, Ferrell's latest starring vehicle, entirely in Spanish with subtitles, will be an acid test as to whether the actor's popularity (which has shown recent signs of waning) can overcome the well-known American subtitle phobia. An affectionate satire of cheapo Z-grade imports from the early '70s (the "copyright date" is 1970), Casa de Mi Padre has a lot of fun with the conventions of the Grindhouse genre while adding some touches that may remind modern viewers of telenovelas.
A movie of this sort could easily wear out its welcome early. Yet Ferrell and company transform the one joke concept into a surprisingly subtle train of gentle jabs at an entire defunct school of filmmaking. Recognizing that most movies of this sort are viewed today as comedies, the filmmakers elect to limit the degree to which they go over-the-top. For the most part, they simply make a movie in the spirit of the originals and the humor flows from the material. There are a few exceptions but, for the most part, Casa de Mi Padre avoids "outrageous" comedy in favor of a more subversive variety. The more you know about the genre being satirized, the harder you'll laugh. It's probably fair to say this is an acquired taste. (I expect to read rapturous praise from the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Roberto Rodriguez.)
Casa de Mi Padre takes place in Mexico, although the time is indeterminate. Based on the language, attitudes, costumes, and props, one might assume it is 1970 (give or take a few years). However, many of the vehicles are SUVs made around 2010. The anachronisms are intentional, making it seem like the characters and their circumstances are stuck in a time warp. The main character is Armando Alvarez (Will Ferrell), a rancher who is deemed worthless by his father, Miguel (Pedro Armendariz Jr.). When a local drug dealer, Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal), commits a murder on Alvarez land, Miguel bemoans not having a "smart son" to help him cope with the problem. Lo and behold, at that moment, Armando's older brother, Raul (Diego Luna), arrives home with his stunning girlfriend, Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez), in tow. Raul is a rich, powerful man and he is determined to stop further incursions on his family's property by Onza. A turf war erupts and, in the midst of all this, Armando and Sonia are drawn to one another.
Some of the fun watching Casa de Mi Padre comes from recognizing the various homages and satirical re-creations of genre conventions. When characters are riding in a car, the scenery speeds by courtesy of obvious rear screen projection. "Outdoor" locales, such as the Pool of Seven Tears, look like sets from the original Star Trek series (plastic plants, Styrofoam rocks, etc.). The mysterious "white cat" is a muppet. In one shootout, a character is able to fire a seemingly endless number of rounds without reloading. The intentionally cheesy dialogue is loaded with ridiculous exposition. There's a softcore sex scene with obvious body doubles (no faces and a lot of butts). There are skips at the end of reels, as if the film had broken and been badly spliced. The movie begins by announcing that it has been filmed in "Mexico Scope." And, midway through, a written apology appears on screen explaining why a dramatic sequence is missing.
What keeps the viewer involved in Casa de Mi Padre is not the obvious, derivative storyline but the array of comedic surprises strewn about by director Matt Piedmont and screenwriter Andrew Steele (longtime SNL scribes), both of whom display a fondness for the genre even as they ruthlessly skewer it. What separates Casa de Mi Padre from many less adept satires is that it doesn't try to make everything a joke. With a genre like this, sometimes less is more. What's being accomplished here isn't substantially different from what was attempted in Grindhouse. That movie failed at the box office because it lacked widespread appeal; the question facing Casa de Mi Padre is whether Will Ferrell's participation is sufficient to overcome the twin obstacles of limited interest and subtitled dialogue.
Ferrell overacts the part of Armando in the style of many genuine '70s leads (and does it with an impressive mastery of Spanish). Armando is a bigger-than-life figure who travels the well-trodden path from impotent loser to savior. Occasional collaborators Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna understand what the filmmakers want from them. Genesis Rodriguez, who made an impression as the female burglar in Man on a Ledge, exudes an abundance of sex appeal. Pedro Armendariz Jr. who, according to IMDb has more than 200 credits to his name dating back to the 1960s, provides a veteran presence.
It's a funny movie, although rarely is the humor of the loud, obnoxious kind we have come to associate with Ferrell. It's not unlike Blazing Saddles, although with a less patched together storyline. Still, no one remembers the Mel Brooks movie for its plot; they remember it for the jokes. This is arguably the most original project with which Ferrell has been involved since Stranger than Fiction (discounting Everything Must Go, since it was a drama). If this sounds like a strange and bizarre endeavor, that's because it is. And those qualities are what make Casa de Mi Padre an enjoyable mix of campy nostalgia and witty satire.
Casa de Mi Padre (United States, 2012)
Cast: Will Ferrell, Genesis Rodriguez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Pedro Armendariz Jr.
Screenplay: Andrew Steele
Cinematography: Ramsey Nickell
Music: Andrew Feltenstein, John Nau
U.S. Distributor: Pantelion Films