It's OK if you're skeptical about the Will Ferrell vs. Mark Wahlberg vehicle Daddy's Home. The trailers have showcased obvious, lowest-common-denominator humor that doesn't look too promising. But the reality is that the film, directed by comedy vet Sean Anders, is much funnier than it appears - never doubt the powers of Will Ferrell.
Ferrell is at his best when he's playing a buffoonish naif, the sweet-natured bull in the china shop who just can't seem to get anything right (see: Christmas classic Elf). That's exactly what Daddy's Home delivers. He's well-matched in Wahlberg, too, who is deceptively sharp as the badass biological dad Dusty.
The story is essentially a masculinity face-off between stepdad Brad (Ferrell) and dad Dusty (Wahlberg). When Dusty unexpectedly shows up on his doorstep, Brad wants to be the cool, enlightened stepparent that he is. But threatened by Dusty's virility and the way in which he wins over the kids, Brad gets sucked into competing with the cool dad - clearly a fool's errand for dorky Brad.
The men are also competing for the affection of Sara (Linda Cardellini), who honestly seems too good for either of them. It's disappointing that the film reduces her to a baby-crazy stereotype, simply standing by to scold or panic or gasp at the antics of Dusty and Brad. Yet she's the one who finally manages to establish a detente in the Dad Wars, banishing the men from the house over which they battle.
While the differences between Ferrell's and Wahlberg's characters offer broad comic strokes, pratfalls, and stunts, the supporting characters are the secret weapons here. Thomas Haden Church plays Ferrell's boorish boss at smooth-jazz radio station The Panda, filled with TMI stories about his multiple marriages. There's also nothing that can comedically match a well-deployed Hannibal Buress, who gives a great supporting turn as handyman-turned-inexplicable-roommate Griff. And it has to be said that the child actors playing the kids, Megan (Scarlett Estevez) and Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) actually give real comic performances.
Daddy's Home is at its best when it's playing with absurdities, commenting on the nature of the film itself. There are some funny bits about product placement (which is rampant), especially about Brad's Ford Flex, and the genre-based expectations for overly dramatic moments, which is undercut perfectly in Buress' sleepy-eyed deadpan. These moments of self-reflexivity are a weird and welcome antidote to the more straightforward gender- and body-based humor.
The film's resolution comes when the two men finally get over themselves and come together for the sake of the kids. It's a joyful and heart-swelling moment where everyone lets his guard down and gets a little silly. Surprisingly sweet and sneakily hilarious, Daddy's Home will pleasantly surprise you when it lets loose.
Daddy's Home *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Sean Anders. With Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini, Hannibal Buress, Thomas Haden Church.
Distributed by Paramount Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (thematic elements, crude and suggestive content, and language).
Playing at: Area theaters.