There’s a fine line between pastiche and burlesque. Most of the [REDACTED] rely on the latter — the SNL versions, where you hit a few buzzwords and simply broadly mock the bullet points. Twilight — sparkles, bad love dialogue, werewolf, vampire, Kardashian, jellybean, boom. It’s less a coherent plot with puns and bodily functions, a series of poorly timed joke sketches presented in succession. Casa de mi Padre belongs happily to the former category: it’s a pastiche of Spaghetti Western and telenovela, done in the actual style of that which it satirizes. It’s less making fun of it rather than making fun with it, and that’s where all the difference lies. I break out Black Dynamite every time I defend this difference, but truly, it’d be impossible not to draw the comparisons. People coming in expecting Anchorman or Talledega Nights are going to be sorely disappointed, and probably won’t get many of the jokes. Will Ferrell and his all white team, including director Matt Piedmont and writer Andrew Steele, made a telenovela. It’s hilarious, because it’s not mean spirited. It’s one of those rare movies where the sheer joy and rapture of cutting loose on set and having fun spills through on every frame. It’s comic gold because they take it seriously. Is it for everyone? No, and they’ll be plenty of people not in on the joke who just won’t enjoy the film. But for the folks who want to level allegations of racism and insensitivity? I’ve got three words for you. Beverly Hills Chihuahua.
As you’d expect from something adapting the old 1970’s Mexican Spaghetti-Western style, the plot is pretty simple. Armando Alvarez (Will Ferrell) is the simple-minded son of Miguel Alvarez (Pedro Armendariz, Jr.), a caballero with a kind heart and a noble spirit, who herds cattle with his two ranchero assistants, Esteban (Efren Ramirez) and Manuel (Adrian Martinez). The farm is failing, and so his father seeks help from his successful son Raul (Diego Luna). Raul returns with his lovely girlfriend Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez), who instantly intrigues Armando. However, Raul’s shady dealings draw the attention of Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal), the local drug kingpin, and soon, Armando finds himself trying to save his family and ranch from destruction and dishonor. If that sounds incredibly cheesy and overblown, it’s because it is. And it’s fucking glorious.
Most of the jokes come from holding laughs and expressions just a hair too long, or from the intense passion or seriousness of the cast. It’s funny because it’s serious. And while they are turning telenovela up to 11, they aren’t making lame and obviously crass jokes at the expense of Mexicans. They are making jokes at the style of telenovelas and Spaghetti-Westerns. Characters will turn away on purpose to deliver passionate speeches into the camera while the other character appears in the background over their shoulder. Nobody’s shouting Taco Bell slogans. Nobody’s a hotel maid spouting broken English. There’s not a crowd of people standing in a Home Depot parking lot. Nobody’s eating burritos and tacos and winking. Nobody’s doing exaggerated Senor Wences schtick. There’s not a single mariachi band in the entire movie. But there are several outstanding musical numbers. And one horrifying sex scene.
Is Will Ferrell in extremely tanned makeup? He is. But this is the only caveat they make. And it actually plays for stronger laughs. When they flashback to a childhood trauma in Armando’s life - a particularly outstanding scene made even more so by the wonderful acting of Louis Carazo and Sandra Echeverria — the child playing Young Armando (Elijah Velarde) is clearly much darker than Will Ferrell. It’s these kind of subtle and not-so-subtle jabs that make the film hilarious.
If I had to issue a complaint, it’s that once again, the filmmakers are relying too much on adding screwed up clips and film reel burps to make it “an authentic bad movie.” Please, stop. In some cases in the film, it works fucking brilliantly. Such as actors starting a scene holding a tequila glass and then in the next shot holding a fully amped margarita with salt and lime slice garnish. Or changing the flower in Genesis Rodriguez’s hair in the middle of scene. Or filming on what are clearly soundstages in front of matte paintings. Or having the actors sitting on “horse” dummies and pretending to be riding. Those are hilarious touches. It adds nothing by adding shots of sound men eating sandwiches in brief clips or by “screwing up” cuts. We get it. Knock it the fuck off.
Will Ferrell does a great job as Armando, because of that naïve idiot man-child bluster he brings to most of his characters. Armando is of the same bloodline as Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby, but he’s also (kind-of) borne by the dramatic and indie work Ferrell did. Ferrell took the part seriously, which is what makes it so funny. But honestly, it’s the rest of the cast doing triple salchows around him while he wobbly legs through scenes that makes the film so outstanding. It’s an improvised Spanish-language film, filled with Spanish language actors, and so Ferrell is clearly out of his element. Genesis Rodriguez comes from the heaving bosom telenovela circuit, and she nails her part, and looks amazing doing it. I want to take Angelina Jolie and show her this movie and say, “See? See this? That’s what you think you’re doing, but you aren’t. So don’t make any more movies unless you have a gun. I cast thee to Kate Beckensale. Now go eat a fucking sandwich and tuck your leg back in.” Nick Offerman plays a DEA agent, and it’s actually his stereotypical mispronunciation of Spanish words and racist broad depiction of white people that’s probably the most racist thing in the movie. But he’s Ron Swanson, so fuck you. Efren Ramirez , Adrian Martinez, Pedro Armendariz, Jr. - all destroy it. I hope this is Martinez’s Danny McBride “Bust-Ass” moment, where a small character actor gets a juicy part and recognition. Or even Ramirez, who’s been so fucking good in so many terrible movies. Efren is more than Vote for Pedro, and I’m as guilty of that pigeonholing as the rest of them. Sadly Pedro Armendariz, Jr. passed before the film was released, but it’s a damn fine final bow. His constant berating of Armando is another of those subtle-not-subtle touches that the film nails.
But it’s Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal who destroy in the film. People who haven’t seen Casa de mi Padre will call it the “Will Ferrell Spanish Movie” because they don’t realize yet. Luna and Bernal are a potent pairing and the true stars of the film, and I will never live down my inability to review Rudo y Cursi for this site and expose you all to the sheer unadulterated awesomeness of their tag team efforts. Y Tu Mama Tambien is old hat, everyone knows them from that. But this will hopefully get them more opportunities to shine comedically. Bernal is manic mode is his best, but he plays Onza like half-Bond villain and half-music video mogul. It’s like watching James Lipton do a week at Sandals. He’s playing it completely straight, but having so much fucking fun. Only, and surprisingly to me, he gets trumped by Diego Luna, who looks like a kindergartener dressing up like a Grand Theft Auto hoodlum for Halloween. Because of his boyish face, his badass brashness is that much funnier. And then as the two of them repeatedly smoke in scenes, sometimes two or three cigarettes at once, and toss insults as Ferrell sits helplessly by and smiles shyly and mutters in his eighth grade Spanish, you’re suddenly aware who are the real kings.
Casa de mi Padre isn’t for everyone. People who hate subtitles. Anyone who seriously believes “they took yur jorbs!” People who live in Arizona. Republicans seriously considering a vote for any of the GOP candidates currently in rotation. You know, the salt of earth. Morons. It’d be easy to slough this off as one extended campfire fart joke at the expense of Mexicans and their bean eating ways. But truth be told, if you pay attention, if you’ve even accidentally watched Telemundo when it wasn’t some sort of novelty show, if you’ve ever seen a Western before 1980, you’ve got enough going on to appreciate the jokes. Steele and Piedmont throw a lot at you, and it’s fucking funny. It’s not the out-of-the-ballpark-and-into-Yawkey-Way homerun that was Black Dynamite. There are plenty of parts that drag and sag. But it’s still worth a gander. And try to catch it in theatres if at all possible, because this is the kind of experimental shit they should be hawking our way. For those who want to level racism at this film, well, shit, I well know that if someone wants to be offended, they’ll find a way to make it about themselves and their fart-faced Frenchy province anyway. Trust me, Beverly Hills Chihuahua does far more damage to the Mexican people, and they’ve made three of those. None of the punchlines to the jokes in this film involve a single foodstuff, I promise you.