While Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg don’t seem like the most obvious comedic duo on paper, when they paired up for 2010’s “The Other Guys,” the chemistry was potent. That film’s co-writer and director Adam McKay knew enough that simply placing them within the familiar mismatched buddy-cop comedy framework would be enough to let the sparks fly. And pushing the far edges of a PG-13 rating, while never being afraid to dip into the surreal and absurd, the picture was a winning one. However, with “Daddy’s Home,” co-writer and director Sean Anders (“Sex Drive,” “Horrible Bosses 2“) decides to flip the idea, pitting Ferrell and Wahlberg against each other. While logic might dictate that would only up the ante on the laughs, in execution, the result finds two gifted comic actors trying desperately to combine their talents, while the story and script is orchestrated to keep them apart.
The story follows, and is narrated by, the big-hearted and milquetoast Brad (Ferrell), the unappreciated step-dad to Megan (Scarlett Estevez) and Dylan (Owen Vaccaro), the kids of his wife Sarah (Linda Cardellini, playing her second empty domestic role of the year following “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” — she deserves better). He’s the kind, responsible man Sarah wants for her son and daughter, and the loving partner she desires in a husband. Brad is constantly working hard to break through to the brittle hearts of Sarah’s kids, but his efforts face a formidable challenge when their biological father and Sarah’s ex-husband, the hunky, motorcycle driving Dusty (Wahlberg), comes rolling back into town. He’s been an absentee parent in almost every way, but not only is he looking to make things right, he wants to get back the life he abandoned. While Brad may say and do all the right things that a parent should, Dusty, already at an advantage as his kids’ actual Dad, starts being the “cool” parent. Soon, the two men are in a battle for the affections of Megan and Dylan.
There is a lot of potential in the premise, but Anders doesn’t make the most of the opportunity or of his lead actors. “Daddy’s Home” quickly gets stuck in a repeating cycle of tepid scene after tepid scene of Dusty outsmarting Brad at every turn. Far worse, scenarios that could’ve been mined for big laughs are curiously left unexplored. Somehow, Dusty manages to wrangle staying under the same roof as Brad, Sarah and the family, and yet, the living arrangements are never once a source of a clash between the characters. This becomes even more pointed when Dusty brings his new pal Griff (Hannibal Buress) — a handyman that Brad was coerced into firing — into the home as well. It’s a situation ripe with possibility, but like many other situations in the movie, it’s squandered, and leaves Buress to hang out to dry along with Ferrell and Wahlberg. Even something as small as the revelation of Brad’s punk background, discovered when he whips out a skateboard decked out in stickers for bands like Minor Threat, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, and Misfits, is an idea brought forward for the sake of a gag (in this case, Brad trying to top Dusty’s halfpipe skills after he builds a ramp in the backyard), only to be cast aside when the joke is over. A more interesting comedy might’ve played that angle a bit further.
And so, with all the comic ringers being underserved, it leaves plenty of room for Thomas Haden Church to steal the entire movie. Playing Leo, Brad’s boss at the smooth-jazz radio station where he works, he shares a handful of wildly inappropriate and largely irrelevant tales about his sexual history and marriage in a bid at sharing some sympathy. Brad doesn’t find much solace in them, but these debauched detours are by far the most inspired moments in the movie, going in an off-the-cuff and dangerous direction the rest of “Daddy’s Home” can never reach. Indeed, there’s a central conflict of identity that plagues the film. Released during the holiday season, it wants to be a warm comedy that teaches a lesson about the shape of modern families, but squeezing in as many sex jokes and foul words as possible while avoiding an R, it’s certainly not a movie for smaller kids. “Daddy’s Home” constantly feels like it wants to let loose, but often comes across as if a boardroom full of executives, perhaps concerned about best serving the product placements for Ford Flex, Bud Light, Red Bull, Cinnabon, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, are managing the content from behind-the-scenes.
Fitfully entertaining, and even more rarely actually funny, “Daddy’s Home,” tellingly, only really comes alive in the very last portion of the third act, when Brad and Dusty put aside their differences and start working together. It becomes evident how much better Ferrell and Wahlberg are when playing on the same team, which makes the film’s surprisingly organic setup for a sequel, promise something prospectively even better than the movie it might be spawned from. However, audiences will have to sit through “Daddy’s Home” first, which may make them wary of giving any followup a chance. [C-]