A goofball comedy laced with very real adult anxieties, "Daddy's Home" engages with both the pressures of a new marriage with stepchildren and the paradoxical nature of modern manhood. In its best moments, it's a sly exposé of the frailties of the contemporary male self-image and in its lesser moments a simplistic slapstick. This being a Will Ferrell comedy, sometimes those moments are one and the same.
"Daddy's Home" re-teams Ferrell with Mark Wahlberg, their alternating energy currents having previously powered the buddy cop comedy "The Other Guys." Here Ferrell plays Brad Taggart, an executive at a smooth jazz radio station still finding his footing in a recent marriage to Sarah (Linda Cardellini), a woman with two preteen children. Brad finds comfort and purpose in the rituals of dad-dom, the school routines, sports coaching and the like.
Just as Brad is making headway into the lives and hearts of his new stepchildren, his progress is upset by the arrival of their father, Sarah's ex, Dusty Mayron (Wahlberg). Dusty's hyper-macho personality is bathed in bad-boy mystique like cologne, in clear opposition to the unassuming, dorky dependability of Brad.
The story is rooted in essential insecurities of modern masculinity — Am I measuring up? What does it mean to be a "real" man today anyway? The film creates a series of emasculating events for Brad, as he can't ride a motorcycle, hasn't taken a punch and owns an inadequate set of home repair tools. The tone of the film remains buoyant, gentle and pleasant, even as it features a conversation on, yes, the relative natural endowment between Brad and Dusty and a moment in which an embarrassed Brad is exposed to an office party full of people as he is about to donate a fertility sample.
Directed and co-written by Sean Anders, the film bears a passing outward resemblance to the recent Amy Poehler/Tina Fey vehicle "Sisters" for the way in which it places two stars with a proven dynamic on comfortable ground. Surprisingly, "Daddy's Home" is somewhat more engaged with the deeper issues floating in its orbit, though neither film is as accomplished as last year's "Neighbors" in stealthily taking on contemporary questions of partnership and self-identity.
Though Ferrell is better known for the oblivious bluster of his characters in films like "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights," there has always been a second current in his work of the sweetly and sincerely hapless. (Think of him as representing two sides of the modern American man.) Here he plays a guy who believed he was ticking off all the right boxes and still finds himself thoroughly befuddled as his life is not on the even plateau he expected. Wahlberg nicely combines the manic energy of his comedy work with the more straightforward appeal of his conventional leading man roles.
Comedian and "Broad City" costar Hannibal Buress steals most every scene he's in as a handyman who, by a few twists, comes to be staying in Brad and Sarah's home. His unusual screen presence — it's as if he's set at a different temperature — creates a delightfully disarming and off-balance liveliness. A moment in which Ferrell, Buress and Thomas Haden Church pause to discuss the options of what could happen next in the scene briefly turns the movie inside-out. The supporting cast also includes an outsized turn by Bobby Cannavale as a lightly sleazy doctor and a bull's-eye cameo by John Cena.
The biggest failing in the conception of "Daddy's Home" is that the fighting between Brad and Dusty over ownership/dominion of the family turns Sarah into a prize rather than a partner. She's a woman who presumably would have some thoughts of her own on who gets to play daddy in her life, yet the movie leaves the character, and in turn Cardellini, feeling underutilized.
But the movie is called "Daddy's Home," after all, and so just as "Sisters" was rooted in the joyfulness of the Fey/Poehler pairing, here the core is really the comedic tension of competitive machismo between Ferrell and Wahlberg. "Daddy's Home" is a movie just smart enough about being dumb.
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Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, crude and suggestive content, and for language
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes