As Hollywood holiday offerings go, the forgettable comedy “Daddy’s Home” isn’t so much a lump of coal as an empty box. Providing a perfunctory platform to reteam Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, whose odd coupling was put to far superior use in “The Other Guys,” the first PG-13 comedy from R-rated laffer auteur Sean Anders (“Horrible Bosses 2,” “That’s My Boy”) winds up an unpalatable mix with little to satisfy families or anyone who likes to laugh. Although Paramount’s Christmas Day release is sure to drum up some sales during the lucrative year-end season, audiences seeking a family-friendly Ferrell fix will quickly realize they should’ve stayed home and watched “Elf” instead.
The film’s nasty streak is established at the outset as walking doormat Brad (Ferrell) explains the difference between a father (someone who produces a child) and a dad (someone who actually nurtures a child). Although Brad desperately wants to be the latter, it would take a medical miracle for him ever to be the former, due to an accident involving a dental X-ray machine (“my testicles have been more decorative than anything else,” he says, setting the tone in an opening voiceover).
Instead he’s delighted to take on the role of stepdad to Dylan (Owen Wilder Vaccaro) and Megan (Scarlett Estevez), the two young children of his beautiful wife, Sarah (Linda Cardellini), from a previous marriage. The tykes are initially skeptical — Megan calls Brad a “little bitch” when he tears up after she invites him to a daddy-daughter dance — but he slowly wins them over with the help of his favorite guidebook, “Step by Stepdad.”
Enter the kids’ biological pop, Dusty (Wahlberg), an adventurer who has been out of the picture for years but races home when he discovers Brad is officially a stepdad. Sarah has concerns about her unreliable ex popping up in her new family’s life, but her kids are thrilled to have their motorcycle-riding, tall-tale-telling, uber-masculine dad back. And while the decidedly non-Alpha male Brad is understandably threatened, he also realizes the importance of Dusty spending time with his children and succumbs to the man’s clearly disingenuous flattery.
Hilarity is meant to ensue when Dusty attempts to undermine and embarrass Brad at every turn, and Brad’s behavior grows increasingly erratic as he’s overcome with neuroses. Unfortunately, the laughs never materialize. The sitcom-ready premise of the script by Anders, Brian Burns and John Morris would be right at home on network television, and yet the terminally bland execution is several notches below even the lowest rung on the small-screen ladder.
The pic’s comic set pieces range from CGI-enhanced slapstick — Brad loses control of Dusty’s motorcycle and drives into the house; Brad loses control of a skateboard and flies into a power line — to neutered versions of the typical raunchy shenanigans found in Anders’ previous work, culminating in Brad’s drunken buffoonery during halftime at a NBA playoff game. A trip to Dusty’s fertility-doctor friend (Bobby Cannavale) packs several humiliations in one, as the doc asks Dusty to expose his genitals to show Brad what he’s lacking and then asks Brad to produce a sperm sample in a room with a faulty window covering.
Combine that with roughly two dozen uses of a common barnyard epithet (including one in which Brad frets that the word is “inappropriate language” for children), the awkward sex-fueled anecdotes of Brad’s boss (Thomas Haden Church, looking bored), Dusty’s attempts to make Brad seem racist to a contractor (Hannibal Buress, looking lost), and Dylan punching a female bully in the face and calling her a bitch, and you’ve got a new definition of family entertainment.
It might qualify as edgy if it wasn’t all so tedious and trite. Ferrell and Wahlberg could play these broadly conceived characters in their sleep, which actually appears to be the case for long stretches of screen time here, and never duplicate the chemistry they demonstrated in “The Other Guys.” Cardellini is thoroughly wasted in a role that’s pure plot device. It’s not until John Cena shows up, in a clever cameo cannily playing off a memorable scene in “Trainwreck,” that true inspiration strikes. Appropriately enough, that happens right before the closing credits.
Tech package is workmanlike, reinforcing the impression that this was just a paycheck gig for all involved.