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.
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.
Piedmont isn't the only one obviously having great fun. Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, normally serious actors who are best known together as the young friends in the acclaimed 2001 film Y Tu Mamá También, obviously must have grown up watching the kinds of movies and television being sent up here. They dive into the absurdity of their roles with relish, and Bernal is particularly memorable as a cartoonishly diabolical Scarface-like narco.
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Meanwhile, Ferrell appears to be enjoying a lead role more than he has in years. He and the filmmaker Adam McKay (another SNL alum) have been building a small comedy empire through their Funny or Die website, and the ragged, anything-for-a-laugh aesthetic that drives much of that material is apparent here. He's been doing some fantastic supporting work in left-field comedic character roles recently, in the HBO series Eastbound & Down (on which he and McKay also serve as co-producers) and Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie (a sketch comedy movie that also, against the odds, works, and was co-produced by Funny or Die). But it hasn't been since his memorable turn as Ron Burgandy in McKay's Anchorman that Ferrell has been this good or this comfortable front and center.
Ultimately, what dooms a lot of sketch-style comedy film adaptations is the fact that sketches, often done on hastily-assembled sets in front of studio audiences, have a flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants immediacy that disappears when they get spruced up with multi-million-dollar budgets. Even if Casa was never a sketch, one imagines that a five-minute web video on Funny or Die with any of these characters would look largely the same as what has made it onscreen here. Since the low production values are part of the joke, the film never suffers for trying to be anything more than what it is.
Oddly, by that logic, the film's climax shouldn't work at all. Piedmont films a showdown that pits Armando and Raul against Onza's small army of drug runners and bodyguards, and makes it into a gorgeously shot slow-motion set-piece. It's pretty to watch, but still manages to not feel like the film is trying to rise above its roots, as it retains many of the more subtle digs at low-budget filmmaking contained within a well-made sequence. The laughs, as is often the case in the film, come from a sense of incongruity.
The other thing Casa has going for it is its inherent smallness. This may be a goofy comedy, but it really has more in common with some of the more intimate dramatic projects that Ferrell has gone for in recent years, such as last year's glum Raymond Carver adaptation, Everything Must Go. Casa is a low-budget independent not necessarily intended for a broad audience—a background in Mexican melodrama isn't necessarily a prerequisite for enjoying the film, but it certainly helps—and as a result doesn't have to bow to the middle-of-the-road multiplex appeal that handcuffed most '90s SNL films.
Comedy rarely works when playing it safe. Casa De Mi Padre's very concept is risky, given U.S. audiences' aversion to subtitled fare. But the filmmakers commit to it, as with all the other silly ideas that occurred to them, and it gives the film the inspired lunacy that defines the best sketch comedy.
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