The Duplass Brothers Try to Hit it Big with Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Will Ferrell Learns Spanish in Casa di mi Padre
The Duplass brothers have been working out on the fringes of cinematic comedy for the better part of a decade now. Originally assigned the unfortunate genre name of "mumblecore," their movies—The Puffy Chair, Baghead, and Cyrus—ultimately proved to be more like the human-sized version of Judd Apatow's movies: character-based, very funny, full of improvisation, but quieter, more realistic, and lacking the broad set pieces that make the Apatow movies work on a multiplex level. Their newest movie, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, feels like an attempt to win something like Apatow's greater successes—it's not quite full Apatow, but it's three-quarters there.
Start with a couple of leading men from Apatovian blockbusters: Ed Helms is Pat, and his brother, Jeff, is played by Jason Segel. The characters they're playing are rougher, slightly more realistic takes on their standard riffs. Pat is a goateed doofus who wants nothing more than to be a success in business and in life; in the beginning of the movie, he tells his wife (Judy Greer) that he bought a Porsche against her wishes, and you get the sense that he wants a Porsche just because successful guys like him are supposed to want Porsches. It's basically Helms's Andy Bernard character from The Office, only slightly meaner, and angrier. Jeff is Segel's man-child character, as seen in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Muppets, only stoned out of his gourd and way more pathetic.
Jeff gets it into his head, thanks to a pot-fueled interpretation of the M. Night Shyamalan movie Signs, that every wrong number is, on a cosmic level, a right number, in that it sends you in the direction you're supposed to be heading. So when he gets an abusive phone call for someone named Kevin, he heads out into the world in search of Kevin. It's the kind of plot that only happens in movies, and it feels out of place and arch in a Duplass brothers joint. The movie builds to a triumphant climax it doesn't deserve, a ridiculous deus ex machina that forces all the characters to wind up exactly where they need to be for a happy ending.
But there's a better movie smuggled inside of Jeff, Who Lives at Home, and it stars the female characters. Susan Sarandon, as Jeff and Pat's mother, is the kind of weary, trapped woman who can't believe what her once-beautiful boys have become. She wants to escape, but she can't tell if escape is what she really wants or if it's just what weary, trapped women like her are supposed to want. Greer, as Pat's wife, is in a similar situation. Jeff continues Greer's streak of rocking stellar roles as quiet women tossing off their desperation and trying, however awkwardly, for something they need. Greer was one of the biggest surprises of The Descendants, and she dominates here, too. By the end of the movie, you want the dumb, overwrought boys to get the hell out of the way so you can watch Greer and Sarandon some more.
Casa De Mi Padre follows the Apatovian formula to the letter—an unambitious man-child (Will Ferrell) must find his place in the world, despite the scorn of his father and pretty much everyone else in the film—but a simple twist saves the movie from being a bore. It's set in Mexico, stars Ferrell as the son of a rancher who gets pulled into a world of romance and violence, is spoken entirely in Spanish—Ferrell, too—and it's a hyperviolent, pulpy tale of revenge, told in grindhouse style. The subtitles alone are enough to turn the multiplex crowd away (my date, a fluent Spanish-speaker, tells me Ferrell's accent is excellent), but they're missing out on something special.
Its experimental edge gives the film a fetching energy. Ferrell gets to riff in two new vocabularies: He has fun with his lines in a way he hasn't since Anchorman (he sounds so proud when he exclaims, in Spanish, "I am riding a horse!"), and his ridiculous physicality sells the macho fantasy when he finally picks up a rifle and prepares to exact revenge against the man who attacked his family.
Padre looks like a genuine artifact of Mexican action cinema: Ferrell witnesses a killing by an evil drug lord (Gael García Bernal, showing a gift for broad comedy) but chooses to do nothing, falls in love with his brother's fiancée (Genesis Rodriguez, beautiful and capable of straight-facedly bouncing off of Ferrell's most ridiculous jokes), has a vision (it involves a tiger puppet), and chooses to battle the drug lord after suffering a great sacrifice. At times it drags, but it's only 84 minutes long, so you know that the dragging won't last.
Some of the jokes are of the easy, offensive, "this is Mexico, and things in Mexico are cheaper than in the United States" variety. But there is enough authentic- seeming anti-US sentiment here (in the form of Nick Offerman's ironically racist FBI agent and, especially, a two-minute conversation where Ferrell talks so much shit about the US that you expect him to be called before Congress any day now) to let us know that everyone's the butt of the joke. That's the most important rule of comedy, right there, and what makes Padre work on just about every level.