“Daddy’s Home 2” just might have to meet “A Bad Moms Christmas” outside in the parking lot to rumble. Both films are seasonal romps about intergenerational love, acceptance and different parenting styles, but “Daddy’s Home 2” gets the slight edge in this turf war. The surreal and silly sequel to the hit 2015 comedy skates by on the well-known but still-appealing comic personas of stars Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg and their zany chemistry.
Co-writer and director Sean Anders returns to helm the family comedy, and like the moms in “Bad Moms Christmas,” “Daddy’s Home 2” doubles down on the dads. While milquetoast sweetie stepdad Brad (Ferrell) managed to exert his sensitive, progressive influence on tough guy Dusty (Wahlberg), it’s a whole new ballgame when their fathers come to town.
John Lithgow is brilliantly cast as Brad’s dad, Don, a.k.a. Pop Pop, a chatty retired mailman with cookies in his pocket. Then there’s Dusty’s father, Kurt (Mel Gibson), who goes by “El Padre” with the kids and is a womanizing, virulently macho astronaut who keeps trying to give his grandchildren guns for Christmas.
The secret sauce that makes the “Daddy’s Home” films work is the strange brew of Wahlberg and Ferrell. Wahlberg is his breathy, exasperated self, while Ferrell executes the naive oaf routine he does so well, lending his clumsy physicality to all manner of bodily injury, accidents and mishaps. Christmas, of course, lends itself well to the repeated power tool gags that Brad gets into, with snowblowers and holiday lights and chain saws and cellphone towers.
The mania produced by four warring dads, two moms (Linda Cardellini and Alessandra Ambrosio) and several precocious kids means the film almost never stops to breathe or let a bit run its course. There’s a genius thermostat dad-joke that would have been that much funnier with more time, but the film zips through its jokes and plot points.
Lithgow’s character is so delightfully conceived and performed with so many perfect tiny details that Don practically deserves a spinoff sitcom. The soft underbelly of the “Daddy’s Home” movies is celebrating male emotion and sensitivity, and Don is the perfect representation of how that makes people around him feel warm and happy. That progressive idea needs a foil, something to bump up against, which is represented by the toxic, macho swagger of Kurt. Casting Gibson is pretty perfect for that, but you have to wonder if he’s totally in on the joke.
Kurt is the villain of the film, encouraging violence between the dads and aggressive sexuality in little Dylan (Owen Vaccaro), who has his first crush. Kurt gives obviously egregious advice, urging his grandson to kiss the girl he likes and “smack her on the caboose.” By playing it for laughs, the film wants to have it both ways. While the casual sexual harassment incites groans (Gibson’s background doesn’t help), Brad lectures on the “friend zone,” managing to skip actually talking about consent.
“Daddy’s Home 2” has its highs and lows. There are moments when it’s deliriously silly and delightful, and others where it misses the mark, lacking the consistency of the first film. And while at times it feels like too many dads, they eventually all learn to “co-dad,” in some kind of harmony.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
‘Daddy’s Home 2'
Rating: PG-13, for suggestive material and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: In general release