“Daddy’s Home 2” isn’t sorry. It doesn’t care about your stupid feelings. Don’t remember what happened at the end of the last movie, or which home belongs to which daddy? Too bad. Don’t want your festive family comedies to star Mel Gibson as a serial womanizer with a flair for violence? Well, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” isn’t out until next week, so you’re shit out of luck. Don’t understand how Will Ferrell could re-team with Mark Wahlberg when a sequel to “Step Brothers” is possibly the only thing that could pull civilization back from the brink? Get in line.
A follow-up to one of Sofia Coppola’s favorite movies of all time, “Daddy’s Home 2” literally ends with its characters snowbound in a multiplex and forced to watch some limp Hollywood garbage because they don’t have anything better to do. In a better world, the situation might trigger a hint of self-awareness before leading to the grand finale in the lobby outside — in the world we live in, the scene is used as an opportunity for one of the characters to peek through the fourth wall and argue that quality doesn’t really matter (every generation gets the “Sullivan’s Travels” it deserves). No, we should be grateful for the fact that movie theaters still exist at all, because they give dysfunctional families a way to spend time together without talking. Truth be told, “Daddy’s Home 2” might have a point. Still, it’s rude to rub our faces in it.
Holiday movies don’t have to be good, they just have to be comfortable, and by that regrettable standard “Daddy’s Home 2” mostly gets the job done. Picking up where the original left off just two long years ago, the film begins with the titular daddies on civil terms, having resolved the pissing contest that once undid the balance of their blended family. Beta male Brad Whitaker (Ferrell, essentially playing a suburban Buddy the Elf) has partial custody of their shared brood, and he teaches his young step-kids and biological son about the joys of being sensitive and emotionally available.
Then, at a time that works for everyone, Brad graciously hands them over to the macho Dusty Mayron (Wahlberg), his wife’s ex-husband. Worst enemies have become best friends; it’s amazing what people can accomplish when they agree to swallow their resentments for one another and just smile through the strain. Sure, there’s a strange energy brewing between Dusty’s statuesque new wife (Victoria’s Secret model Alessandra Ambrosio) and Brad’s current one (Linda Cardellini, continuing to deserve better), but it’s not enough to rock the boat.
And then, a tidal wave: Everyone is going to spend Christmas together, and they’re going to be joined by Brad and Dusty’s own dads. Just when you thought two dads was a lot to handle — BOOM — four dads. That’s not a typo. Four. Dads. This must be what it felt like for people to see “The Arrival of a Train” for the first time, except much scarier; with all due respect to the naïve 19th century audiences of an apocryphal story, but a locomotive racing towards the camera isn’t nearly as terrifying as the sight of a grizzled Mel Gibson riding down an airport escalator in slow-motion. It feels like director Sean Anders storyboarded this scene with his drawings from that time he had to illustrate “toxic masculinity” during a game of Pictionary (a game he presumably won). This is Kurt, Dusty’s father, a retired astronaut with a cold heart and a thick head of hair. If Gibson isn’t playing himself, then he’s certainly playing our idea of him. Kurt could call his own daughter-in-law “sugartits” and you wouldn’t bat an eye.
Brad’s father is less hostile in both character and casting, John Lithgow playing Don Whitaker as a hyper-affectionate caricature of Mr. Rogers. Don, of course, has some troubles of his own, and we eventually come to learn that he’s not as perfect as he seems (Kurt may be a monster, but not even he subjects the family to a night of improv comedy). The granddads are natural foils, an exaggerated riff on the already exaggerated dynamic between their two sons, and things go awry shortly after Kurt moves everyone into a mountainside AirBnB for the holiday. The film’s tagline says “More Daddies. More Problems,” and Paramount ain’t kidding. There are more daddies. And there are more problems, each of the mildly amusing setpieces alternating between physical pain for Brad (a snafu involving Christmas lights is particularly violent), and emotional pain for Dusty (it’s fun to watch Wahlberg struggle to express himself on purpose). Few of the gags will make you laugh out loud, but everyone has such a clear idea of their characters that it lends the entire thing a watchable sense of integrity.
While “Daddy’s Home” used mean-spirited comedy to casually explore gender norms, this sequel pushes similar means towards slightly different ends and pitches its tent in the middle of a culture war. Forget men vs. manliness, this is Republicans vs. Democrats. Tellingly, the difference between the two themes is both very obvious and borderline imperceptible. And before you complain that critics are looking at every movie, no matter how benign, through the lens of current events, please know that Cardellini’s impressionable character calls Brad a “snowflake” after he doesn’t approve of their daughter getting a rifle for Christmas.
These tensions, however vague, are especially hard to ignore because “Daddy’s Home 2” is so much more engaging as a family drama than it is as a comedy, and more engaging as a thought experiment than it is as a family drama. In a perverse way, Mel Gibson is the film’s greatest feat of casting (save for a truly brilliant cameo in the final seconds), as our antipathy towards the actor makes it easy to appreciate Dusty’s feelings towards the unapologetic character he’s playing. This is obviously the kind of movie that ends with everyone hugging out their differences, but we’re left with a queasy perspective on that reconciliation. Dusty’s forgiveness is so dubiously earned that the movie leaves us questioning its validity. Of course it’s easier to absolve a monster when they’re our monster, but what’s the good in that when all it does is set us up for another sequel?
“Daddy’s Home 2” is now playing in theaters.