Just as it is sometimes worth serving brussel sprouts to children to see if they’ll someday cease to cause tableside mutiny, subtitles should be tested on the mainstream movie marketplace every so often. Mel Gibson did it in The Passion of the Christ and grossed a reported $612 million worldwide. The Artist tried a new (old) twist — silent with intertitles — and took home a bunch of Oscars. Now along comes Casa de mi Padre, a Spanish-language parody of a telenovela with subtitles. Can its star, Will Ferrell and his co-producer, old friend Adam McKay, convince a mass audience, the same one that loved their movies Anchorman, The Other Guys and Talledega Nights, that reading at the movies isn’t all that taxing?
As a test case though, Casa de mi Padre is flawed in that it wouldn’t be particularly enticing in any language. About five minutes of its mercifully short 84 minutes would make a nice sketch on Ferrell’s Funny or Die. The rest of Casa de mi Padre tends to the tedious, either because its supposed comedy is inert or involves slow motion eruptions of flesh and blood from fake gunshot wounds. It’s a limp return to goofy form for Ferrell, who impressed in a serious role last spring in Everything Must Go.
Speaking the careful Spanish of a proud tourist, Ferrell plays Armando, the son of a rancher (veteran Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz Jr., in one of his last screen appearances) who is fond of pointing out that Armando has a good heart but a fat head and “the eyes of a small chicken.” Dad’s favorite son (Diego Luna), now a big time drug dealer, arrives home towing a bombshell fiancée (Genesis Rodriguez from Man on a Ledge) and baggage from business dealings with a bigger drug dealer (Gael Garcia Bernal). Armando and the fiancée develop a love-hate relationship that yields a few flashes of humor (She: “I am no good.” He: I am no better!”)
Everyone seems to be having a good time, particularly Luna and Garcia Bernal, the reunited Y Tu Mama Tambien co-stars, and Ferrell, whose gets to sing around a campfire (a song called “Yo No Se” — it’s kind of catchy). But there’s that overwhelming sense that the cast is more in on the joke than we are. The most intriguing aspect of the movie are the hints of border politics. Armando lets loose a screed against not just drug sellers, but drug buyers, namely the Americans these Mexican families are supplying. “Americans are babies who buy big houses with no money,” Armando says, and then launches into everything that’s wrong with the gringos. There’s some real anger and point of view there, but it wanders off somewhere and never comes back, lost perhaps in the fake sagebrush.
(READ: Rethinking the Art of Subtitles)
The gags about how amateur a medium telenovelas are go on and on, from ridiculous props (Rodriguez rides a fake horse) to bits about continuity issues and technical difficulties, with the supposed 2nd assistant cameraman interrupting a scene to apologize. Ferrell and director Matt Piedmont never progress beyond the most basic of premises: telenovelas and low-rent Mexican exploitation films exist, and are silly, ergo, let’s make fun of them. The audience for the dopey dude humor of Ferrell-McKay productions might well enjoy a laugh at its own Nascar-loving expense in a Talledega Nights style parody, but what is the telenovela to them? Are they even familiar enough with it to breed contempt? The rewards in mocking something inherently silly and unpretentious seem limited, although Ferrell may have enough Latino fans who think it’s a stitch to see this aspect of their culture mocked to make the modestly budgeted Casa a financial hit.
As for all the jokes about sub par filmmaking — there’s a shot of an ominous looking man in a pair of shiny sunglasses, and reflected in one of them, a deliberate mistake, a crew member, glumly chewing through a sandwich — it’s never good to rely so heavily on them when the parody itself is just as lazy and about as smart.