Here's a challenge. Gather some friends, pour some drinks and announce to everyone the premise of Daddy's Home, the new family comedy about dads competing to be pater superior. It won't take long: Will Ferrell is a doting schlemiel of a stepdad to suburban moppets whose biological father, played by Mark Wahlberg, some kind of special-ops tough, rumbles back into their lives on a motorcycle as sleekly phallic as H.R. Giger's alien.
That established, why not spend a couple minutes guessing at what scenes are certain to be in the movie? Ferrell crashing that bike, of course. Comical compare-and-contrast shirtlessness, certainly. A funny dog? A daddy/daughter dance? A long-suffering wife and mother (Linda Cardellini) who, to facilitate the comedy, lets her ex move in to the house and then takes turns encouraging both of these men in their jackassery? Yes, yes and yes. Daddy's Home is composed almost entirely of setups you've seen from its predecessors. (Hey, that's working for Star Wars.)
There's product placement whose brazenness is passed off as a joke. There's a sequence of humiliation in a fertility clinic that reveals the datedness of the phrase “on the nose”: Here, the doctor (Bobby Cannavale) quite literally makes both stepdad and wife handle and admire real dad's mighty junk. (What does it take to get a PG-13?) The movie's not set in Los Angeles, but it still finds time for that comedy ritual, familiar from Jack and Jill and Forget Paris, of killing time at a Laker game. There, Ferrell's character — he's named Brad, for what it's worth — shames his family from center court.
Whatever list you whip up will often correspond with the film. Did you guess that the rival dads would find themselves bickering over how best to advise their young son to handle bullies? And the setups you don't see coming make little sense, even for a dumb comedy: It's funny that Brad is an executive at a syndicate of smooth-jazz radio stations, but the movie has him drive Wahlberg's character, Dusty, into the office to spend the day together. Think about this: The morning after the kids' long-lost father arrives and begins to show him up, Brad turns him loose at work, too. It's like if Billy Zane in Critters packed up his toothy hellbeasts before heading to the bank.
The movie is 100 minutes of the men attempting to out-dad each other, right down to trash talk about who is better equipped to put another baby into Cardellini's Sarah. It's tired in concept, flimsy in structure and it only on occasion suggests that anything is being satirized. Cardellini, a champion eye-roller, smartens up every scene she's in, hinting at what the script doesn't dare: That rather than a prize these dopes are fighting over, Sarah is almost as touched as they are — that she's irresponsible enough to be amused at her family's deeply unhealthy situation.
Like Jennifer Jason Leigh in the first half of The Hateful Eight, Cardellini sends up the men who dominate the frame, stealing scenes in which her character might have been incidental. It's encouraging that she gets so much screentime, and gets to do so much with it. The movies don't bother to write her roles as rich as what she's played on TV, but she's not holding herself back, even when cast as a plot device.
The performers are all skilled enough to make something of this tired material. Hannibal Buress and Thomas Haden Church ace oddball supporting roles, although Church is funnier than his lines as the skeevy older white dude who tells long, inappropriate stories.
Ferrell's chaotic spirit is reined in, as we're supposed to feel for his touchy-feely self-help obsessive — the movie asks us to root for him to win, but also to toughen up a little. Ferrell lunges after feeling rather than his usual dada explosions. At least once his face, as Brad gets continually shamed, is so persuasively stunned and heartbroken that the movie seems to turn on us and demand Why do you find this pain amusing?
But such conceptual daring is rare. Too often, we're just watching Wahlberg play a simpleminded version of masculine supremacy while Ferrell embodies its opposite. As usual in family comedies that come out around the holidays, the leads have to learn some lessons. Surprise: Brad needs some of Dusty's cocksure cool, and Dusty needs some of Brad's maturity and warmth. That moral is just as obvious and meaningless as anything in Daddy's Home, but I will say this: It's delivered in a rousing, ridiculous dance number, the kind of pleasurable stupidity that works even if you can see it coming.
DADDY'S HOME | Directed by Sean Anders | Written by Anders, John Morris and Brian Burns | Paramount Pictures | Citywide