Will Ferrell portrays a simple-minded Mexican cattle rancher in the Spanish-language “Casa de mi Padre,” a kitschy telenovela-meets-Spaghetti Western written and directed by fellow “Saturday Night Live” alumni Andrew Steele and Matt Piedmont. Co-starring Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal as rival drug lords who get caught up in the American Drug Enforcement Administration’s schemes, the film’s surprising charm lies in its sheer implausibility.
Armando Alvarez (Ferrell), an affable yet dim-witted young man, finds his livelihood threatened when his family’s beloved cattle ranch teeters on the brink of financial ruin. The sudden return of the elder and more successful Alvarez brother Raul (Luna) and his Sports Illustrated model of a fiancée Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez) initially promises to restore the family to its former prosperity, but Armando quickly discovers that the sibling he idolized is not all that he seems to be.
Family drama and drug warfare collide as Armando begins to fall for Sonia in the midst of escalating tensions between Raul and the fearsome local overlord Onza (Bernal). But little do the Alvarez brothers know that Sonia has secret ties to Onza’s drug cartel. When the DEA steps in to orchestrate a fatal standoff between Raul and Onza in order to prevent Mexican drugs from crossing the border, it is up to Armando to try to rectify the situation. But naturally, nothing goes quite according to plan.
Viewers with at least first-year proficiency in the Spanish language will notice the unrealistic and almost inauthentic quality of the dialogue, a product of Steele writing the script first in English and then deliberately translating each line. The subtitles at the bottom of the screen only call more attention to the intentionally poor writing, with riotous results. But of course, even the cheesiest of lines would be nothing without the over-the-top, telenovela-style delivery.
Luna and Bernal, established dramatic actors in their native Mexico who first burst onto the international scene with 2001’s “Y Tu Mamá También,” prove their comedic chops beyond doubt. Bernal, as the two-timing Onza, takes the villainous caricature to new extremes, while Luna, perpetually dressed in gaudy suits with his fingers dripping with jewels, is all sleaze and slicked-back hair.
Although under Piedmont’s direction the actors push the boundaries of their stock characters in inventive ways, “Casa de mi Padre” is not merely a parody of genre but rather a parody of moviemaking itself. Much like the script, the camera has no qualms about revealing the inherently contrived nature of cinema. From painted backgrounds to choppy editing, the film refuses to passively offer the viewer an alternate reality to sink into.
Despite an undertone of social commentary, “Casa de mi Padre” is arguably more subversive when it comes to style than content. The portrayal of Raul, Onza and the DEA offer a subtle message that the drug war is a universal problem unfettered by geographic boundaries, and yet the film’s attitude toward Mexican stereotypes seems to be more self-aware than self-righteous.
And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film proves that Ferrell has range, his performance is nonetheless refreshingly hilarious, perhaps because for once his physical awkwardness as an actor matches his stilted speech as a non-native Spanish speaker. Either way, by the time the credits roll, it’s clear he’s done his job well—kept us laughing the whole time and wanting more.