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Can 'Daddy's Home 2' bring holiday merriment back to the box office?

Can 'Daddy's Home 2' bring holiday merriment back to the box office?
"Daddy's Home 2" stars, from left, Mel Gibson, Mark Wahlberg, Owen Vaccaro and Will Ferrell. (Claire Folger / Paramount Pictures)

Horror has been having a moment at the box office. Meanwhile, the recent results for Hollywood comedies have been downright horrifying.

The last comedy to gross more than $150 million at the domestic box office? The Will Ferrell-Mark Wahlberg slugfest “Daddy’s Home,” which roped in holiday audiences during the Christmas season of… 2015.

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A sequel, “Daddy’s Home 2,” which adds John Lithgow and Mel Gibson to the mix as the lead characters’ own dueling dads, opens Friday. It will enter a very different commercial environment.

Compare the grosses for three of 2017’s biggest sleeper hits — “It” ($325 million), “Get Out” ($175 million) and “Split” ($138 million), all from the horror genre — to the year’s top grossing comedy, “Girls Trip” ($115 million).

While the R-rated "Girls Trip" was a rowdy, rousing success, and catapulted breakout star Tiffany Haddish to fame (she’ll host “Saturday Night Live” this weekend), it has been an island in a sea of disappointment. A dispiriting string of comedies — from "Baywatch" and "Rough Night" to "Snatched" and “The House” — have underperformed and proved unpopular with audiences.

It may not be a coincidence that all those comedies were also rated R.

”I think these things are cyclical,” said Sean Anders, director of the “Daddy’s Home” movies. “I remember a time when everybody in Hollywood was clamoring for the next R-rated comedy because of ‘The Hangover.’ There’s so many different things that affect whether a movie performs well, not the least of which is how good it is. It’s definitely getting harder and harder for any movie that doesn’t have a superhero or R2-D2 in it.”

Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell's characters try to get through spending Christmas together with their fathers, played by Mel Gibson and John Lithgow, in "Daddy's Home 2."

One secret weapon that “Daddy’s Home” hopes will make a difference: appealing to audiences of all ages.

"There's a great upside of PG-13 where you can have a wider audience and make movies that kids can go see," said Anders. "I feel like [‘Daddy’s Home 2’] is a movie you can take kids to. Probably not young kids, although I have to say, anything that feels inappropriate for kids under 6, they're probably not going to get anyway."

The relatively family-friendly territory was a switch for Anders, who built his career with R-rated comedies like “Horrible Bosses 2” and “We’re the Millers” (exactly the kinds of movies that don’t seem to be working anymore).

“With an R-rated comedy, you obviously have more freedom,” said Anders. “Your characters can say whatever they want to say. You’re allowed to have grown-ups talk a little more like grown-ups. And that’s the part that’s tricky when you get into the world of PG-13, where it’s very regimented.

"With the 'Daddy's Home' movies, we wanted the movies to be entertaining for adults and for kids. It has some edgier jokes that adults and teenagers think are really funny but that aren't so over the top that you're horrified to have your kid hear it or see it."

Making a film that kids can’t go see is “a bit of a bummer,” Anders acknowledges. And conversely, working in a more family-friendly arena doesn’t need to limit a film’s appeal to adults.

“Even these Pixar movies that are completely designed for kids will go up several lines along the way,” Anders said. “And there’s something about that territory that makes the movie more exciting and more real and more like the world that we all live in, including kids.

“I remember being a kid and there being some racy jokes in movies like ‘The Goonies’ or a little bit of [foul] language and feeling like, ‘Oh, this is sort of exciting to see this kind of stuff in a movie.’ “And that’s sort of what we’ve been trying to do with both ‘Daddy’s Home’ movies.”

In addition to “Daddy’s Home 2,” the December releases “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “Pitch Perfect 3” are two more titles hoping PG-13 laughs with broad appeal are the ticket to shaking the recent comedy blues. Both are due out around Christmas, as is the Owen Wilson-Ed Helms movie “Father Figures” which is rated R.

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But before that, “Daddy’s Home 2” picks up where the original left off, with dad Dusty (Wahlberg) and stepdad Brad (Ferrell) joining forces once again, this time with the goal of making a memorable Christmas for the kids. Tempers flare when the granddads come home for the holidays, as Dusty's father, Kurt (Gibson), stirs up trouble between the co-parenting duo.

”We really wanted to shake things up instead of just adding the grandfathers to this movie,” said Anders. “We definitely have certain callbacks to the first movie, like introducing the grandfathers on the escalator the same way that we introduced Mark’s character in the first movie. [But] I really don’t like sequels where you just reset the character arcs and play them out the same way again.”

Perhaps the character that brings the most edge is Kurt, whom Gibson plays with a macho, hard-edged lothario swagger. The actor, who was arrested for DUI in 2006 and was recorded making anti-Semitic remarks, hasn’t been seen on-screen in a major studio release since 2010’s “Edge of Darkness” and hasn’t appeared in a studio comedy since 2000’s hit “What Women Want.”

Although it appeared that his career opportunities suffered as a result, Hollywood has welcomed Gibson back. He was nominated for an Oscar for directing last year’s World War II drama “Hacksaw Ridge.” It remains to be seen how mass audiences will receive his high-profile comedic turn.

"We tend to write things that are pretty optimistic and that are always about people growing up and changing for the better," Anders said of the decision to hire Gibson. "So we felt like it would be pretty hypocritical if we weren't able to give someone a chance in the same way that our characters do in our movies.”

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