A Christmas family film about raising young boys to be men? Better call Mel Gibson.
There appears to be, in some quarters, a hope that Sean Anders’ Daddy’s Home 2 will be a rehabilitative landmark for Mel Gibson as a likeable, mainstream movie star after several years of acting in forgettable pics made strictly for genre audiences. The notion becomes implausible upon seeing his intensely unsympathetic performance here, but that’s a secondary concern we can come back to. More important is that, however mediocre the first film was, this sequel not only makes it seem charming by comparison but gives viewers the dubious gift of a full-on sappy Christmas movie two weeks before Thanksgiving. After the box-office success of the first Daddy’s Home, Paramount may think the second outing has sufficient legs to reach the actual Christmas season. But in this case, doubling down on dueling daddies yields less than half the pleasure, and Daddy’s Home 2 should be a charcoal-in-stocking bad memory by the time Santa comes to town.
Here, the first pic’s heroes Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) and Brad (Will Ferrell) have made their peace about sharing custody of the two children Dusty sired with his ex-, and Brad’s current, wife Sara (Linda Cardellini). But that equanimity is threatened when, in addition to the expected arrival of Brad’s hugs-and-kisses papa Don (John Lithgow), the family learns it is getting a surprise visit from Dusty’s bad-boy old man Kurt (Gibson).
Even for moviegoers willing to set Gibson’s real-world tantrums aside and judge what’s onscreen (as some of us did with Jodie Foster’s commercial disaster The Beaver), Kurt is a figure to turn one’s stomach — and would have been even before the last month trained a spotlight on the corrosiveness of this brand of macho arrogance. Forget the possessive leer Gibson directs at women before he even gets a line to read; look instead at the unsettlingly convincing sociopathic gaze he directs at the actors meant to be his family. Either Gibson’s a better actor than we thought, or he has found a kindred spirit in this character. Whatever the case, it takes something like a sadist to enjoy watching the way Kurt proceeds to bully children and grown-ups alike over the next hour and a half.
When the gang all gets home from the airport, Kurt looks around and decides nobody’s house is big enough to contain his ego. So he — just as any of us would do — pulls out his phone and rents a chalet hours away, expecting that the eight other people involved will drop everything and transplant their holiday plans. And that’s exactly what they do.
The script, by Anders and John Morris, relies heavily on slapstick, with most of the gags coming at Brad’s expense. It’s odd, for a film that ostensibly makes male vulnerability its ultimate goal, how much contempt it has for its most open and loving character. “But Ferrell is made to be a buffoon!,” you say. Yes. But the comedian who starred in Elf and Talladega Nights and ran with his belly out in Old School is on vacation here, turning in a performance as lazy as Anders’ direction, which lets us spot most jokes long before they’re made.
When not putting Brad through the wringer, the picture looks at how he is unwittingly transmitting his meek ways to adopted son Dylan (Owen Vaccaro). Dylan is in the throes of his first-ever crush, and Brad’s advice guarantees failure. Dusty is understandably eager to keep his progeny from getting stuck in “the friend zone,” but Kurt one-ups him, instructing the child to grab whatever kisses he wants and slap the girl on the ass when he’s done. The poor kid will actually do this later, and we’ll be expected to laugh. Good thing we changed Hollywood’s culture last month, right, guys?
When he’s not busy training the next generation of date rapists, Kurt is sowing seeds of discord between the two co-dads. Though Dusty knows his ways, and desperately tries to warn Brad not to take the bait, soon the two men are going at it. Friction between the grandpas is less well defined, but that’s partly because Don has a sad secret to hide, and partly because the movie never tires of watching him kiss his adult son on the lips. (Even the third time around, this got the expected “ewwww” from the crowd in a Manhattan preview.)
What of the women in Daddy’s Home 2? One of the daughters is an unlovable mean girl; one’s her gullible follower. The girl who steals Dylan’s heart does nothing but smile. Sara, whose choices brought all these ill-matched characters together in the first place, does little more than complain about the messes they make. And Brad’s new wife Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio) is conspicuously onscreen and silent almost the entire picture: Having introduced her in the first film with a dumb one-off joke — yes, she’s a Victoria’s Secret model and a celebrated novelist — Anders realizes that if he puts a notebook in her hands and has her scribble notes instead of speaking, he can work around whatever shortcomings Ambrosio has as an actress.
In the last of its clumsy contrivances, Daddy’s Home 2 traps all its squabbling characters together in a lobby full of Christmas decorations, then builds a set piece around that ’80s classic of well-intentioned cultural ignorance, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
Even Bob Geldof, that charity jingle’s co-writer, knows it’s loathsome, having called it and “We Are the World” “two of the worst songs in history.” So yeah: Why not close this turkey of a film with one of the holiday season’s most annoying songs? And while you’re at it, why not play the entire thing a second time during the credits?
Production company: Gary Sanchez Productions
Cast: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, John Lithgow, Linda Cardellini, Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vaccaro, Didi Costine, Allessandra Ambrosio, John Cena
Director: Sean Anders
Screenwriters: Sean Anders, John Morris
Producers: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Chris Henchy, John Morris, Kevin Messick
Executive producers: Molly Allen, Sean Anders, Jessica Elbaum, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson
Director of photography: Julio Macat
Production designer: Clayton Hartley
Costume designer: Carol Ramsey
Editor: Brad Wilhite
Composer: Michael Andrews
Casting directors: Ben Harris, Allison Jones
Rated PG-13, 99 minutes