Will Ferrell's latest feels like an SNL sketch turned into a movie. Amazingly, though, it works.
Anyone remember Stuart Saves His Family? Or It's Pat? Perhaps you do remember A Night at the Roxbury, but are desperately trying to forget it. In the wake of the success of Wayne's World, the '90s were littered with failed attempts to translate short-form Saturday Night Live comedy to the big screen, but the track record for SNL movies—and really, most cinematic sketch comedy adaptations—is, forgive the pun, sketchy at best. Five minutes built around a single central joke can seem interminably redundant at 20 times that length.
Technically, Casa De Mi Padre, the new Spanish-language comedy starring Will Ferrell, isn't sketch-based or a direct SNL descendant. But it feels like it should be. Director Matt Piedmont and writer Andrew Steele both wrote for the program in the late '90s and early '00s, and Steele's first (and only other) feature screenwriting credit was the disappointing 2000 attempt to make Tim Meadows's Ladies Man character work as a feature. Additionally, Casa on paper seems based on a one-note concept ill suited for a full hour and a half: the simple fact of Will Ferrell doing an entire telenovela-style film in Spanish, trying to convince an audience that he's a Mexican ranchero.
The filmmakers and performers in "Padre" riff endlessly around the margins of the familiar framework of western B-movies.
That conceit is certainly the starting point for the humor. Indeed, the first time Ferrell appears onscreen and begins speaking, the audience laughs, even when he's not saying anything particularly funny. Ferrell's greatest comic strength is the appearance of serious determination in contrast to the ridiculousness of whatever else he happens to be doing. Here, the faux-gravitas of the performance dovetails nicely with the filmmakers' intent to spoof the melodramatic, self-serious world of Mexican telenovelas. Ferrell's seriousness and the source material's silliness feed into one another, creating a kind of self-sustaining comedy loop that makes this film work.
Ferrell plays Armando, the simpleton son of a Mexican rancher, the titular Padre. He spends his days riding the range with an even simpler ranch hand sidekick, Esteban (Efren Ramirez). Early on, Armando's brother Raul (Diego Luna), a successful city slicker, returns to the ranch to introduce his new fiancé, Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez) to the family. A smitten Armando quickly falls for her, even as he questions her motivations as well as his brother's love for her. He also soon discovers that his brother is trafficking drugs, and that Sonia is the niece of the local drug lord, Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal). Onza doesn't take kindly to the double threat of Raul marrying into his family and potentially stepping on his drug turf, and that puts the whole family in danger.
These all feel like the convolutions of a fairly standard western B-movie. But like jazz musicians, the filmmakers and performers use that familiar framework to riff endlessly around the margins. The main subject for ridicule tends to be low-budget Mexican cinema and soaps' poor production value, which Casa parodies to ridiculous lengths.
In one scene, Armando and Esteban watch from a hillside as Onza and his men kill a man. The shots of Onza are outdoors, shot on location, but when the angle reverses, Ferrell and Ramirez are obviously hiding out among fake rocks, with a badly painted studio background behind them. In another, Armando and Sonia go for a horseback ride, on what are clearly fake horses on wheels. An establishing shot of a town is done using poorly disguised models. Hilariously clumsy fake product placements come out of nowhere. Ferrell is sometimes replaced (once in a sex scene) by a mannequin. An animatronic cougar aids a comically trippy vision quest.
The list goes on and on, as Piedmont takes glee in proving that he's actually a talented filmmaker by showing just how effectively he can recreate and tweak poor filmmaking practices. One could teach a class on continuity errors in film based around the running visual jokes the director creates around the rolling and smoking of cigarettes.