“If it sounds Spanish, man, that’s what it is. A Spanish movie.”
Or is it? That’s the opening voiceover narration to Casa de mi Padre, a Spanish-language comic-melodrama influenced by Mexican telenovelas, Spaghetti Westerns, grindhouse gore and Will Ferrell farces. The one thing it isn’t, actually, is Spanish.
So let’s just say this: Casa de mi Padre is a work of cross-cultural comedic brilliance. Ridiculously irreverent yet somehow, at heart, deeply diplomatic, it’s the perfect jester for 2012, when courts as high as the United States’ Supreme one had immigration on its mind.
Ferrell, who “learned” Spanish for the role, plays Armando Alvarez, the sweetly dim son of a Mexican rancher. Happy to tend to the herds with his buddies (Efren Ramirez and Adrian Martinez), Armando defers to his brother Raul (Diego Luna of Y Tu Mama Tambien) on matters of business and love. Unfortunately, Raul has gotten involved in the drug trade, resulting in a feud with the ruthless narco boss known as Onza (Luna’s Tambien costar Gael Garcia Bernal).
Luna and Garcia Bernal have a grand time with their villainous stock characters, especially in a bar showdown that involves approximately 68 lit cigarettes. Also quite funny, simply by playing it straight, is Genesis Rodriguez as Raul’s fiance. (Her experience in various Telemundo series is put to good use.)
As for Ferrell, he too fares best in the movie’s straight scenes, such as they are. He even has a touching soliloquy, in which Armando sings the praises of his ideal woman. The scene is goofy, of course, but there is also something slyly subversive about the loveliness of the Spanish language coming out of the mouth of one of America’s broadest comedy stars. Indeed, I can’t think of another major comedian who has, mid-career, done something this non-formulaic. (Serious, out-of-character Oscar bids don’t count.)
There is more to the movie than the performances, however. Director Matt Piedmont gives Casa de mi Padre a ludicrously florid visual scheme that has you giggling even as you feel your retinas being burned. Starting right from the James Bondian title sequence – in which Christina Aguilera belts out the title song while DayGlo silhouettes simmer on the screen – Casa de mi Padre is a burst of overly bright lights and super-saturated hues (half the time the camera seems to be pointed directly into the sun). This is all supposed to echo the amateurishness of cheapo Spaghetti Westerns, yet it somehow takes on a gonzo beauty of its own.
Less entrancing, yet even funnier, is the extreme fakery on display. The production employs painted backdrops, a miniature town square and an animatronic desert cat that serves as Armando’s spiritual guide. The movie even pauses during a fight between that cat and some coyotes to apologize for its low-budget ineptitude.
Where’s the diplomacy amidst all this absurdity? Maybe it’s simply that there is equal-opportunity spoofing going on. For all the telenovela conventions being lampooned, the most eviscerated target is America. Nick Offerman, of television’s “Parks and Recreation,” has a bit part as a blowhard fed, while an early conversation about the root cause of the drug trade blames American consumers (or, in the movie’s terms, “*$&!-eating crazy monster babies”). Sometimes geopolitical cinema looks like Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. Sometimes it looks – and sounds – like this.