The most frustrating thing about Daddy’s Home is that it didn’t have to be bad. Will Ferrell has his ups and downs, but this feels less like a Ferrell vehicle than an Adam Sandler movie. I wish I could lay it cleanly at the feet of Dumb and Dumber To writer and That’s My Boy director Sean Anders, but he’s made some not-awful comedies too, so there was hope.
I’ve said before that Ferrell needs some sort of constraint to really perform at his best. That can be a high-concept gimmick like Casa de Mi Padre, working outside straight, zany comedy as he did in Everything Must Go, or just a really strong opposing lead, like Zach Galifianakis provided in The Campaign. Ferrell’s Daddy’s Home co-star Mark Wahlberg actually provided exactly this last kind of push-back when they made The Other Guys, and they actually balance pretty well here too.
The problem is that they’re balancing on a really boring and unimaginative script. Ferrell is Brad Taggart, a schnook who wants nothing more than to be a dad, but who lost the ability in a dental office mishap. Luckily, he married Sarah (Linda Cardellini), who has two kids — Megan (Scarlett Estevez) and Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) — from her previous marriage to Dusty Mayron (Wahlberg). And, after a long settling in period, they’re finally starting to accept Brad when Dusty shows up.
Brad wants to play nice with Dusty, allowing the kids to spend time with him rather than setting him up as a forbidden fruit. And under normal circumstances that would be the right move, but not here. Sarah tells Brad she thinks it’s a bad idea being so friendly with Dusty. “He gets in your head”, she says. And while Dusty may not have been violent with her or the kids, he’s a master manipulator, and his gaslighting tactics in any other movie would mark him as an abusive partner.
Except in this movie, there seems to be nothing wrong with Dusty. Very late in the game we see that he’s temperamentally unsuited to domesticity, but up until that point his only flaw is being a jerk to Ferrell, who frankly is as much of a jerk to him. Not only Dusty everything Brad isn’t, he’s everything he is as well, and better. He’s strong and tough and cool. While Brad struggles to find a new voice for the smooth-jazz radio network he works at, Dusty comes in and records a spot in a single take, making himself instantly wealthy and winning the loyalty of Brad’s boss (Thomas Haden Church) on top of everything else. At home, he sets Brad up to look improbably racist in front of a contractor (Hannibal Buress) and then even more improbably moves the contractor into Brad’s house.
Yes, improbable things happen in zany comedies, but at every turn Daddy’s Home relies on every single character being exactly as stupid as the writers need them to be to let all this slide. And the worst of all is Sarah herself, who has a history with Dusty and knows all his moves, and yet still is not only powerless to cut him off at the pass, she falls for his gambits as strongly as anyone else. It evidently never crosses what I’m pretty certain Anders thinks of as her little woman-brain that Dusty might be up to the exact sort of dirty tricks she knows and says he once used on her. News flash: women who have escaped from abusive partners are usually pretty highly sensitive to seeing the warning signs again. If she has already recognized him as a manipulator, Sarah is the last person who should ever fall for Dusty’s manipulations again.
There’s no give-and-take between Brad and Dusty. There’s no move of Brad’s that Dusty doesn’t immediately outdo. The best lick Brad gets in is trying to buy the kids’ love even if it means going into debt, and even that shouldn’t actually work because the movie already established that his own company is already paying Dusty thousands of dollars a day. It’s not just that the dweeby critic sticks up for the dweeby character; without a lot more balance, this whole thing degenerates into Ferrell acting as a punching bag until the writers decide to jam the “right” ending into place so we can all go home.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.