To make fun of a genre film, you really have to love the genre. When you watch Blazing Saddles – or Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood – it feels like the filmmakers are ribbing a dear old friend, rather than spitting on a hated foe. When you watch the later Scary Movies there is no joy to be had, because the passion for horror cinema has disappeared. Fortunately, by the end of the opening scene of Casa de mi Padre, we are left in no doubt that Matt Piedmont and his coven of talented artistes have an unabashed passion for the trashy Mexican Westerns of the 1950s and 60s. I don’t know if it’s the intentionally disastrous continuity errors, the badly painted backdrops, or the fact that Will Ferrell speaks in seemingly fluent Spanish… but something tells you that these guys really love what they’re doing. Maybe too much.
Armando Alvarez (Ferrell) is, as his father regularly points out, not the sharpest nacho on the platter. Compared to his recently returned prodigal brother, Raul (Luna) – a sharp-suited, slick-haired lothario – well, let’s just say you wouldn’t leave Armando alone to pet your rabbit (and if you think that’s some sordid analogy, you need to read Of Mice and Men… immediately). Raul’s return from Mexico City, and the announcement of his engagement to the jaw-dropping Sonia (Rodriguez), are greeted with screams of praise from the entire Alvarez ranch… finally Raul has returned to save the family!
Unfortunately, Raul didn’t make his money the hard way in the city. He’s a major drug baron with a long list of enemies, and his return to the family ranch brings unwanted attention from the local drug lord Onza (Garcia Bernal), who also happens to be Sonia’s uncle. When Armando discovers that his brother is a no good gangster, he realises his time has come to take the mantle of hero and patriarch, and save his family from the wolves and coyotes gathering at the gates.
If that brief synopsis sounds melodramatic then I’ve still probably underdone it! This is easily as uproariously clichéd and on-the-nose as any of the wonderful B-movies from that era. This is pure send-up, pure farce. You’re never allowed to settle into the story and start the laborious process of “caring” about the characters, because every time you start down that road, Garcia Bernal sticks three cigarettes in his mouth at once, of Ferrell attempts to help a lady onto a horse but gives up halfway and leaves her hanging awkwardly off the side. It’s a mad-dash slapstick caper with wonderfully shoddy sets and intentional ham acting.
Of course, being objective, that’s as much a tick in the ‘con’ box as it is in the ‘pro’. There’s plenty of room for fun in a film with some heart, and removing all the emotional depth from any human story – no matter how melodramatic and funny – is a shame. But at a trim 84-minutes, there’s plenty to keep us entertained and I can’t imagine anybody leaving the cinema dissatisfied.
And the whole production actually works as a new canvas for the wonderful Will Ferrell. We’ve seen him in his own projects and in a few great dramas in recent years, but this is the first time we’ve seen him in a feature film that is as surreal and farcical as his early SNL sketches. The camp madness that surrounds him here lends his grumpy upturned smile, shifting bear- like eyebrows, and twinkly blue eyes a strangely mature and sturdy edge. Compared to everything around him, he seems to be underacting! It’s an interesting and enjoyable spectacle.