Will Ferrell has made some good comedies not directed by his longtime collaborator Adam McKay, but McKay has been at the helm for almost all of his best film work. With his comedic soulmate branching out into less goofy territory with The Big Short, Ferrell’s 2015 comedies have offered a glimpse at what his career might look like with higher concepts and lower executions—the kinds of vehicles he’s often been able to avoid (or transcend) in the past. McKay and other cohorts like writer-producer Chris Henchy still turn up in the credits for Get Hard and Daddy’s Home, but not as the primary creative drivers of the project.
This gives a movie like Daddy’s Home the peculiar feeling of an in-house knockoff: It re-teams Ferrell with his Other Guys costar Mark Wahlberg in a domestic-comedy situation not terribly removed from Step Brothers, in theory if not in practice, spun out with less inspired lunacy than either McKay picture, but with the original creative team’s tacit blessing. As in Other Guys, Ferrell plays a buttoned-up rule-follower; his Brad has always wanted to be a father, cannot have kids of his own due to an unfortunate accident, and is excited to play step-parent to the two young children of his new wife Sarah (Linda Cardellini). As the movie opens, Sarah’s two kids from her previous marriage are gradually growing accustomed to Brad, with little Megan (Scarlett Estevez) even producing a family drawing where Brad isn’t depicted as dead or dying. But when Sara’s ex Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) blows back into town, Brad is placed in a passive-aggressive battle for the kids’ affection.
This roughly recreates the dynamic of their previous film together, wherein Ferrell’s policeman positivity rankled at Wahlberg’s testy, macho posturing. Here, even though the rivalry is less one-sided, the two actors are less effective as a comic duo. Wahlberg’s character is more based in conceit than performance; he’s expected to get laughs from the idea of his intimidating, physically impressive underminer more than his line deliveries. The movie also muddles the conceit itself, never developing a clear idea about where Dusty falls on an absent-dad spectrum ranging from worldly adventurer to deadbeat lowlife. A lowlife would be funniest, at least based on some of the early details, like Dusty’s disdain for Brad’s good credit score, his bribing his kids’ affection with “all kinds of Starbursts,” and his bringing home a mangy, scary-looking dog he found in a storm drain.
But the movie softens quickly and confusingly, bouncing Dusty from talented jack-of-all-trades to immature hotshot to slick con artist on a scene to scene basis, without ever milking his ambiguity for laughs. Ferrell, always a pro, fares better; having his characters hit rock-bottom is a reliable source of amusement, and that eventually happens again (though less ornately and hilariously than, say, Ron Burgundy). It almost has to; in contrast with Ferrell-McKay joints, where as many characters as possible get in on the laughter, he and Wahlberg are most of the show here. Poor Linda Cardellini gets stranded playing a vaguely passive wife who distrusts her ex but essentially goes with the flow depending on which man dominates her attention in the moment.
There are two other side characters, one endearingly strange (Hannibal Buress as a handyman who takes up residence in the family’s household alongside Wahlberg) and one stock (Thomas Haden Church as Ferrell’s inappropriate boss), who are put together for a particularly funny scene with Ferrell where the movie stops cold for them to discuss how they might better milk more emotion from a dramatic reconciliation. But this is an exception in a movie that more often relies on unconvincing big-scale CG slapstick, even though its funnier pratfalls all have a little more real-world weight. Daddy’s Home isn’t as slack or laughless as the worst vehicles for Ferrell’s contemporaries Ben Stiller or Adam Sandler. Like other comedies co-written and/or directed by Sean Anders, it’s fitfully amusing and, given that quality, a little too sure of itself. Overconfidence in the face of mediocrity is something Ferrell usually satirizes. This time, he’s more of a participant.