Casa de mi Padre is remarkably difficult to categorize. On the one hand, it’s eighty minutes of bizarre, absurdist, surrealist humor bent on taking potshots at immeasurably melodramatic telenovelas as well as the works of Sam Peckinpah. On the other, there’s still very little cinema to which it has a direct analogue. Take, for example, Friday’s other comedic release, 21 Jump Street, a film that can be connected to past releases such as Hot Fuzz and Superbad; meanwhile, Casa de mi Padre doesn’t really have the same sort of cinematic kinship, at least none that’s particularly flattering. If anything, the Will Ferrell vehicle shares a family resemblance with movies like Machete or last year’s abominable Rubber— films that could work as shorts but which, stretched out to feature-length, end up collapsing in on themselves. That’s not really where a movie like Casa de mi Padre wants to be.
Fortunately, Matt Piedmont’s film knows that it’s running on a joke with very low mileage, and so he makes sure to keep the conceit from expanding to the point where it overstays its welcome. Casa de mi Padre is mercifully brisk, clocking in at around an hour and twenty minutes* and boasting an economy of laughs to compensate for its short running time. There’s an incredible amount of oddness stuffed into the movie’s short running time, from animatronic jungle cats to hyper-trippy spirit visions to missing reels to the central jape of casting Ferrell, one of the whitest men alive, in the role of a Mexican rancher. Of course, he’s surrounded by a cast comprised almost solely of actors of Latin American descents– Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna, Génesis Rodriguez, Pedro Armendáriz, Jr., and Efren Ramirez– which, ultimately, serve to make that punchline resonate even further.
Here, Ferrell plays Armando Alvarez, a simple and kind-hearted man who’s worked on his father’s (Armendáriz, Jr.) ranch for his entire life. His existence is peppered by conflict with Alvarez Sr., who frequently berates Armando for lack of brains (which, the older man claims, he gets from his mother) while lauding his other son, Raul (Luna). Raul’s secretly a drug dealer, though, and his activities end up embroiling the entire Alvarez family in a war with La Onza (Bernal), a powerful rival kingpin; naturally, it falls to Armando to defend his family name and defeat La Onza, all while courting his brother’s gorgeous fiancée, Sonia (Rodriguez).
Sound ridiculous enough to start off with? There’s a subplot involving corrupt Federales and American D.E.A. agents, too, but mostly that seems to exist so we can all hear Nick Offerman speak terrible Spanish. Everything else is overcooked dramatics, as we might expect from a riff on programs like La Reina del Sur, the goofy, offbeat, and uncomfortably awkward humor we expect from a Will Ferrell film, and a surprising amount of violence, captured with the same crimson-soaked exaggeration as Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days. You may feel wrong for laughing at the conclusion of a wedding that’s been turned into a bloodbath. If it’s any consolation, you’re not alone in either your mirth or your guilt.
Then, of course, there’s Ferrell. Without a doubt, Ferrell will be the decisive factor for many in calculating their enjoyment of Casa de mi Padre; there exists little middle ground in gauging him as a comedic actor. In short, people either tend to love him or despise him. But wherever you fall, he’s the sort of performer who deserves to be admired; few among Hollywood’s reigning funny people can commit to their characters with the same unshakable dedication as Ferrell, and that’s why his brand of oblivious straight-man humor works so well among his fan base. Here, his performance exemplifies that quality perfectly. In fact, daffy and unaware and endlessly optimistic no matter the circumstances, Armando Alvarez might be one of his most enjoyable roles in the last five years.
Quality of work or no, there’s of course little arguing that Casa de mi Padre is niche humor made for a specific comedy palette. Like its star, Piedmont’s film goes for broke and embraces its essential beats unabashedly, going full-bore into its daffy, low-rent parody. That Casa de mi Padre manages to remain firmly outside of Family Guy territory almost damns the movie with faint praise, but working with an idea this loose that’s so heavily geared toward a short-form medium, it’s something of a miracle that Piedmont doesn’t pull a MacFarlane and go more than an iota beyond what’s necessary for his film to work. Maybe trimming five minutes would have helped the film, but they certainly don’t hurt it, either.
In the end, Casa de mi Padre represents flash-in-the-pan filmmaking. I doubt that what Piedmont, Ferrell and the excellent supporting cast have done here will be remembered more than a year down the line. That may sound dismissive, but it’s likely true. As funny and on-point as the film may be (not to mention that it’s surprisingly lovely to look at, even with its painted backgrounds), it’s also telling a joke that really only works once. But be that as it may, it’s damn good joke that’s totally singular and in the end well-worth experiencing.
*So did Rubber, admittedly. But Piedmont isn’t in love with his own presumed cleverness, something which– along with Quentin Dupieux’s obvious self-satisfaction– made Rubber feel thirty minutes longer than it deserved to be. Machete, on the other hand, is actually about thirty minutes longer than it should be. It’s anyone’s guess as to which is worse.