“Casa de mi Padre” is “Machete”’s gentle cousin. Both movies celebrate the hyperactive, low-budget, transgressive aesthetic of 1970s exploitation cinema. But while “Machete” relished its guts-ripping, heads-flying, motorcycle-leaping-in-a-ball-of-fire roots while pushing some political hot buttons, “Casa de mi Padre” is sometimes far too ambitious for its own good.
Not only does it take on the Mexican narco films of the Almada brothers and their ilk, but “Casa de mi padre” embraces the worst dialogue and acting from 1970s telenovelas and adds a smattering of 1960s psychedelia just because. Oh, and there’s singing around a campfire and a closing credits duet that seems to have been shot for a 1960s Mexican variety show as well. It’s so unique, so strange, it almost feels avant-garde. Some people will get the joke, most won’t (judging by the reviews I’ve read so far). The more entrenched you are in the culture, the more you’ll get out of it.
Written by Andrew Steel and directed by Matt Piedmont –Will Ferrell’s “FunnyorDie” and “Saturday Night Live” socios– the movie’s premise would be enough for a 15-minute skit: what if Ferrell could speak perfect Spanish? The skit is expanded to 84 minutes, and while about ten could still have been easily cut, what’s on-screen is mind-bogglingly absurd and hilarious.
Ferrell plays Armando Álvarez, the good-hearted, simple-minded, wistful son of a Northern ranchero (Pedro Armendáriz, Jr. in his final role) whose love for the land cannot be denied. He just needs the right woman to share that love with. His sleazy brother Raúl (Diego Luna), returns home bringing with him Sonia (Génesis Rodríguez), his magazine-cover bride-to-be, and a dark secret: unbeknownst to his father, Raúl is a narco. And yet, the father lays all kinds of praises on Raúl while berating Armando for reasons the script is not interested in exploring and doesn’t need to.
But Raúl has more than a wedding at his father’s rancho in mind. By returning, he wants to cut in on rival Onza’s (Gael García Bernal) territory. And given that Sonia was once Onza’s girl, marrying her so close to his turf is nothing more and nothing less than a declaration of war.
Once Armando lays eyes on Sonia he realizes that she is, in fact, the woman he’s been looking for all his life, a feeling soon reciprocated by Sonia as they go horseback riding (on top of fake horses) together one afternoon. But when Raúl and Sonia’s wedding ceremony comes at a violent and precipitous end, Armando must prove that he has what it takes to avenge his now dead father and take control of the land that is so rightfully his. But, first, he will make a quick stop in Alejandro Jodorowsky-land via the Jim Henson Company’s animatronics and some groovy colors.
“Casa de mi Padre” is a movie where everybody involved is in on the joke. Everybody’s tongues seem to be firmly planted on cheek (and am not referring to the rather cheeky and deliberately tacky sex scene between Génesis and Ferrell involving a lot of rear groping). And yet, the film feels completely earnest at the same time, respectful towards the entertainment such trash once provided (and still provides for those who have yet to trash their VHS and Beta collections). The cast and crew fully embrace the low budget hokeyness of the genre: the fake sets, the fake animals, the cheesy miniatures, the continuity mistakes. They are playing these characters with the straightest faces they can muster (although you can’t miss Diego’s and Gael’s mischievous twinkle in their eyes; not only do they know what they are doing, but they are relishing the idea of playing and twisting those stereotypes).
Ferrell, Steel and Piedmont may be paying a loving tribute to 70s Mexican exploitation cinema and telenovelas but they also manage to pull out of their sleeves moments that are deliriously Monty Pythonesque in nature (a long English title card voice-overed in Spanish explains why one scene involving a jaguar-coyote fight couldn’t be shot) and others feel like they were conceived after much peyote was consumed. “Casa de mi Padre” is odd in more ways than one: not a star vehicle and yet spearheaded by a star, financed and released independently, about a piece (or several pieces) of pop culture that may not be familiar to many, with the occasional political ribbing or two. And yet, that’s what makes “Casa de mi Padre” work more often than not: Ferrell and his team made the movie they wanted to make, warts and all, because they didn’t have to respond to the whims of a major studio. Besides, any film that features a cameo by José Luis Rodríguez “El Puma” knows what it’s doing.