Given that everyone who had anything important to do with Casa de Mi Padre is a graduate of Saturday Night Live, it makes sense that this Spanish-lingo farce plays very much like an SNL sketch. The only problem is that it packs about as many laughs into its 85 minutes as a good skit does in eight or 10. All the same, a mirthful feel emanates from this melodrama parody simply by virtue of Will Ferrell’s turn as the slow-witted, black-sheep member of a Mexican ranch family infected by the drug trade. Only a portion of the star’s fan base is likely to turn out for this deliberately hokey indie release, which is appropriately debuting at the South by Southwest Film Festival, though compensation could come if smart marketing stimulates curiosity in the Mexican-American market.
While the humor of pretend horses, fake backdrops and extended naked butt groping knows no language barriers, it’s likely the most appreciative audiences for this broadly performed goof will be fans of Spanish-language telenovelas, which trade on the sort of sultry stares, emotional overstatements and exaggerated proclamations that are sent up here. The fact that a good half of these declarations are delivered by Ferrell in perfectly fluent but over-enunciated, American-accented Spanish adds to the amusement, even if it’s clear within a few minutes that the comedy is going to be one-note, repetitive and within a very narrow range.
After a brash Leone-as-filtered-through Tarantino main title sequence — the film is announced as having been shot in “Mexico Scope” — dufus grande Armando (Ferrell) and his two ranching sidekicks (Efren Ramirez, Adrian Martinez) witness an execution administered in a remote area by notorious narco La Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal). Back at the hacienda, Armando is ridiculed by his macho father (the late Pedro Armendariz Jr.) for never having had a woman when who should appear but “smart” son Raul (Diego Luna) along with a knockout, Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez), he intends to marry.
But the moment Sonia and Armando lock eyes, you know the road’s going to get bumpy, especially since Raul has taken up the drug business himself and Sonia has an unsavory history with La Onza.
The latter name means “snow leopard” in Spanish and a fair share of laughs comes from an obviously phony large white cat (designed by the Jim Henson workshop) that mouths mystical phrases and looks out for Armando, who can use all the help he can get.
Even with its brief 85-minute running time (extended post-end credits by a very strange mock promotional clip of veteran wilderness movie star Dan Haggerty basically inviting audience members to come get stoned with him), Casa de Mi Padre struggles to achieve feature length with a flashback about Armando’s gunned-down mother and incidental scenes with mostly corrupt cops and a DEA agent who speaks Spanish with the broadest of all possible American accents. Hiccups of humor escape from time to time and all the actors ascend to the required over-the-top spirit, but the high times deflate pretty quickly due to the sitting-duck comic targets and the lack of fall-down outrageousness that marks the best Ferrell-Adam McKay outings, notably Anchorman and Talladega Nights.
In addition to the star and his producing partner, SNL alums here include debuting director Matt Piedmont and writer Andrew Steele of Funny or Die. The film is dedicated to Armendariz, who died in December at 71.