The funny thing about telenovelas is that they’re so absurdly melodramatic with cheap-o production values, painfully earnest acting, and clunky dialogue. That’s the one joke in “Casa de mi Padre,” a deadpan, affectionate send-up of those Spanish soap operas and grindhouse-style spaghetti westerns, and it’s stretched like Silly Putty to 84 minutes. Emmy-winning “Saturday Night Live” writer Matt Piedmont makes his directorial debut and has lovingly created an oddball novelty, but given his collaboration with star Will Ferrell on the sketch-comedy web series “Funny or Die Presentsâ€¦,” this feature-length effort might’ve worked better as a sketch. As “Casa de mi Padre” proves, the conception is cutely amusing but the execution is meager at best.
With a big heart but a fat head, Armando Alvarez (Will Ferrell) is a Mexican ranchero who’s known as the idiot in the family, and his father (Pedro Armendariz Jr.) isn’t afraid to tell him so. Armando must defend his father’s land when his brother Raul (Diego Luna), who returns home with his sexy new fiancÃ©e, Sonia Lopez (Genesis Rodriguez), turns out to be a drug dealer and owes a debt to The Onza (Luna’s frequent co-star Gael Garcia Bernal). Meanwhile, Sonia wants out of her marriage with Raul when she sets her eyes on Armando.
From the opening “Mexico Scope” logo, “Casa de mi Padre” is a goof through and through. Director Piedmont and the crew get all the visual details right and are surely having fun making an intentionally amateurish movie. There are painted-on-cardboard backdrops and rear-projection driving shots, continuity errors, and missing reels (one coming with a long apology from the second camera assistant). And yet, didn’t Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino do similiar tricks with more inventiveness, cheekiness, and consistency in their double-bill collaboration of 2007’s “Grindhouse”? Even the camera crew is clearly reflected in a character’s sunglasses, and a mannequin is obviously used in a sex scene of mostly butt shots, which will go down in The Most Absurd Movie Sex Scene Hall of Fame next to the ones in any of “The Naked Gun” spoofs and “Hot Shots!”
Everyone plays it completely straight, and that’s a good thing. Having headlined some of the most commercially successful comedies and spreading his wings in more dramatic fare (“Stranger Than Fiction” and “Everything Must Go”), Ferrell could never be criticized for not being committed. He couldn’t play a better boob, even if he wore a pair of literal boobs on his chest, and here, Ferrell has the cajones to speak entirely in Spanish. Without being obnoxious, Armando is a variation of the gentle, clueless boobs he’s played before. As the hot tamale Armando is after, Genesis Rodriguez is stunningly caliente and understands the joke, coming off funny without trying to be funny. Frequent co-stars Luna and Bernal are a hoot and seem to be comfortable with the material.
The film might have an unpretentiously goofy, daffy spirit, and the visual details are funny in their own right, but as a gags-a’plenty comedy, no mas! Between the smirks and chuckles, there are long smoke breaks when the jokes fall flat or are nonexistent. While we’re on the subject, three laughs involve smoking, one of which has a character being shot in the chest and then asking for a cigarette during his last breath. There’s also a weirdly hallucinatory fever-dream sequence with a mystical snow leopard (blatantly a puppet) that’s pretty inspired, but nothing gets more outlandishly weird than that.
Unconventional for a contemporary comedy, avoiding easy gross-outs and forced crudeness, and too earnestly played to hate, “Casa de mi Padre” might still turn away Ferrell fans because they’ll have to read subtitles. How can one hate a movie where its underlying messages are so obviously delivered in lines of dialogue, as in “not all Americans are bad” and “not all Mexicans are drug dealers”? As a cinematic experiment, it’s easy to have affection for, but as a comedic spoof, it’s only fitfully amusing and wears thin when a series of shorts would’ve been just fine. By the end of the year, nobody’s going to remember the jokes in “Casa de mi Padre,” just the overall concept.
84 min., rated R.