After bracing myself for Casa de Mi Padre to be a significant departure for Will Ferrell, and after the deliberately Tarantino-esque opening title sequence had me intrigued about the possibilities of this Spanish-language exercise, I was surprised to find myself noting that the first few scenes were very Ferrell-y indeed. Perhaps we were starting out in the usual vein in order to ease us in to something completely different?
As it turns out: not completely different, no. Casa de Mi Padre is a unique Ferrell outing in that it's entirely in subtitled Spanish and has a distinct aesthetic style, being a parody of the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez school of faux-grindhouse cheesiness and cheap Mexican dramas. But under that veneer are all the hallmarks of a Ferrell adventure: absurdism, earnest silliness, humor that's weird but not quite Tim-and-Eric levels of weirdness, and whole-heartedly committed performances.
Ferrell conceived the idea and developed it with screenwriter Andrew Steele and director Matt Piedmont, both collaborators from his Saturday Night Live days and the ongoing Funny Or Die web venture. The story is about an old Mexican rancher, Miguel Ernesto (Pedro Armendariz Jr.), and his two sons, Armando (Ferrell) and Raul (Diego Luna). While the loyal but incompetent Armando has stayed home to work the land, Raul has been out running the family business, in the process joining forces with drug kingpins. He returns to the ranch to the great joy of his father -- "You're the son I always loved!" Miguel Ernesto cries, right in front of Armando -- and brings with him his beautiful fiancee, Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez).
But Sonia is dangerous, and not just because of her beauty. She has ties to another drug cartel, headed by a ruthless character called the Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal), which could spell trouble for Raul. Because we recognize the basic formula being employed here, we know what to expect: greedy Raul will fall, honest Armando will have to find his courage and save the family, and lovely Sonia will come between them.
Contrary to what you might expect, this isn't a one-joke film. Only rarely is the fact that Will Ferrell is speaking Spanish meant to be funny. It's more like a long-form spoof, with a basic story serving as the framework for general goofiness. There are Anchorman-ish bits like Armando and his ranchero friends Esteban (Efren Ramirez) and Manuel (Adrian Marinez) enjoying a hearty laugh that dissolves into a series of increasingly unenthusiastic chuckles. There's a running gag, at first unaddressed but then finally the subject of a hilarious conversation, about Armando rolling his own cigarettes and not being any good at it. There's a "vision quest" scenario that looks like an acid trip, a comically grotesque sex scene that emphasizes the slapping of butt cheeks, and more than one traditional-sounding musical number.
Piedmont, previously uncredited as a feature film director, imitates the Leone-filtered-through-Tarantino style remarkably well, down to the artistic slow-motion gunfights and close-ups of people's boots. Added to this is an ongoing gag about this being an impossibly cheap production, with obviously fake horses and painted backdrops. Sometimes the jokes slide into self-referential territory, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail meets Mexploitation.
That might be overselling it, though; mention Monty Python and people's expectations go up considerably. I laughed a lot at the joyful absurdity of Casa de Mi Padre, finding it consistently enjoyable both as an oddball experiment and a straightforward spoof. But I tend to be amused by Will Ferrell in most circumstances, and the things I like about him -- his bizarre sensibilities hidden beneath a mainstream exterior, his unwavering sincerity regardless of his characters' absurdity -- are on display here.