Either the best or worst Spanish-language Will Ferrell oater-comedy ever made, “Casa de mi padre” is a likable enough lark that rarely achieves outright hilarity. Wittily treating Ferrell’s turn as a south-of-the-border ranchero as though it were the most reasonable piece of casting in the world, this amiably straight-faced spoof of soap/horse operas doesn’t deliver enough consistently funny business to sustain its “Tombstone”-on-Telemundo conceit. Subtitles will keep a wide Stateside audience at bay but should pose no obstacle for Spanish speakers and/or novelty seekers, and the pic could attain lower-tier cult status on homevid.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this effort from debuting director Matt Piedmont and scribe-producer Andrew Steel (both longtime Ferrell collaborators on “Saturday Night Live” and comedy website Funny or Die) is its level of visual craft. Mimicking the sun-baked Technicolor look of old spaghetti Westerns with an often amusing degree of verisimilitude, the picture revels in retro artifice, from the patently fake-looking set for a small desert pond to the blatant rear projection that accompanies a scene of two riders on horseback.
Furthering the illusion are occasional scratch marks and evidence of skipped frames that mar the print in a way that recalls 2007’s “Grindhouse.” But these B-movie tics not only feel old-hat by comparison but make one wish the script had evinced the level of wit and energy it might have with a Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino at the helm.
As it is, the pic takes its time warming up as it introduces Armando Alvarez, a Mexican rancher with the soul of a romantic and the brains of a gnat. That Armando is played by Ferrell, looking more tan than usual and speaking accented but perfectly proficient Spanish, goes completely unremarked upon by the other characters or the film itself; everyone here more or less plays it straight, a smart tactic that raises expectations that there will be more to the picture than a protracted fish-out-of-water gag.
Fitting nicely into Ferrell’s gallery of ungainly, overgrown comic misfits, Armando is regarded as a black sheep by his father, Miguel Ernesto (Pedro Armendariz Jr.), who makes no secret of his preference for his smarter, more successful son, Raul (Diego Luna). What Dad doesn’t fully realize is that Raul is a drug dealer locked in a fierce turf war with crime boss Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal). Further complicating matters, Armando begins to fall for Raul’s jaw-droppingly beautiful fiancee, Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez), who is in turn stirred by Armando’s statement that his ideal woman “must love the land as I do.”
Most of the script’s alternately earnest and overripe dialogue seems to have been written in that deliberately thudding style, translated in as stilted a manner as possible, and delivered accordingly by the actors; in classic telenovela fashion, nearly every exchange between Armando and Sonia is performed with one character addressing the back of the other’s head. By contrast, no heads are seen at all in a lakeside lovemaking montage that earns the film’s biggest laughs.
There are other pleasures to be had, most of them courtesy of a mystical wildcat (a nifty piece of animatronic engineering by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop) that appears to Armando in a sort of peyote-fueled burning-bush encounter, en route to a climactic shootout where blood erupts like Kool-Aid. Ramsey Nickel’s widescreen 35mm lensing (“MexicoScope,” per an opening logo) and David Trachtenberg’s editing provide their fair share of yuks, as when the camera pulls back from a massacre to zoom in on a single, bloodstained white rose.
Considerably less entertaining are the draggy drug-war plot and the characters who populate it, from “Parks and Recreation’s” Nick Offerman as a crooked DEA agent to regular onscreen partners Luna and Bernal, whose pairing here fizzles within moments of their initial confrontation. Except for Ferrell and Rodriguez, both displaying mucho spirit and zero condescension, the thesps don’t leave much of an impression, apart from that of being in on an elaborate joke. While “Casa de mi padre” doesn’t exactly overstay its welcome at 84 minutes, its conceptual goofiness and technical prowess prove inadequate substitutes for the zesty characterizations and sharp comedic interplay that would have made it more than just an agreeable curio.
Musical choices are as cheesily spot-on as the visuals, though Christina Aguilera’s performance of the title tune sounds an anachronistic blast over the stylish opening credits. Pic is dedicated to character actor Armendariz, who died in December, making this posthumous appearance a fitting tribute to his own lengthy career in telenovelas as well as Mexican and American movies.