By John Anderson
December 23, 2015

If Will Ferrell didn’t exist, men might have to invent him. Ferrell’s screen persona—an idiot, generally speaking—is guileless, clueless, boorish, foolish and, often enough, funny. But he’s also intended to make us uneasy. He’s a repository of male anxieties, insecurities and doubt. A scapegoat. A whipping boy. An avenue of transference without the high price of psychoanalysis.

This has never been truer than in Daddy’s Home, which—make no mistake—is first and foremost a humiliation comedy of the most cringe-inducing variety. But in its vulgar, antic way, it also raises questions about modern manhood, the wisdom of doing the right thing and the sexual allure of decency. (Spoiler alert: there is none.)

Ferrell’s character this time is not an oblivious anchorman, race driver, elf or George W. Bush, but rather a mild-mannered radio executive, which already puts him outside the orbit of cool. Add to this the fact that he’s the second husband of Sara (Linda Cardellini), devoted stepfather to her two young children, Dylan and Megan (Owen Vaccaro and Sara Estevez) and nebbish extraordinaire. And how do the kids feel about him? If he were on fire, they wouldn’t spit their Sunny D in his general direction. When they draw pictures of their family, Brad is off to the side, with a knife in his head. Brad, however, is undaunted: He’s going to win them over no matter what it takes.

And then, suddenly, Daddy’s back in town. Brad, self-effacing to a fault, even offers to pick up his wife’s ex at the airport; he comes down the jet way with the swagger of a gunfighter. “There’s no doubt this man is your better in every way,” observes a limo driver, watching Dusty Mayron–all leather, attitude and Mark Wahlberg–enter the airport. “If this guy was my wife’s ex I’d put a bullet through my skull,” offers Brad’s boss (a terrific Thomas Haden Church). How will Brad compete? Especially when it becomes clear that Dusty isn’t just there to see his kids, but steal back his wife?

Daddy’s Home certainly has a pedigree, pun intended: Directing is Sean Anders (Hot Tub Time Machine, Dumb and Dumber To, Horrible Bosses 2); the screenplay is by Anders and Brian Burns (Blue Bloods, Entourage, Big Shots). Adam McKay, who has made a gallant bid for respectability this season with The Big Short, is among the producers, as are Ferrell and Chris Henchy (Get Hard, Tammy). That said, it should come as no surprise that Daddy’s Home is just another entry in a comedy subgenre rooted in mortification and indignity. Brad’s suffering is not just emotional, or psycho-sexual, but physical: In one rather impressive “stunt” (if computers can do stunts), Brad loses control of Dusty’s motorcycle, rides it through the front door, up the stairs and out a wall, half-destroying the house. Dusty insists Brad and he fix it themselves, which puts Brad in the position of firing the handyman his wife has already hired (the sleepy-eyed, slyly hilarious Hannibal Buress), who accuses Brad of racism and promptly moves into the house. Along with Dusty.

Of course, that suffering has to accelerate, or the movie will lose whatever momentum it has, so Brad’s degradation increases, not only with frequency and intensity but by the degree by which he, rather than fate (or Dusty) is responsible. A scene at a Lakers game, to which Brad has scalped tickets, doesn’t end with Dusty–a vaguely military type who’s trained others for Iron Man competitions–bringing the kids courtside and introducing them to Kobe Bryant. No, no, it becomes an existential exercise in self-abasement, public shaming and, for the audience, a vicarious strain of near-physical discomfort. All comedy is about pain, it’s true, but by the time Brad drunkenly tries to sink a basket from half-court on national television, Daddy’s Home suggests what it might have been like being put on the rack.

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