DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
At age 44, Will Ferrell has played an anchorman, championship NASCAR driver, ice skater, an elf, and George W. Bush. What's his next challenge? Making a movie in which he speaks nothing but Spanish. The Mexican-set action comedy "Casa de mi Padre" is directed by Matt Piedmont, who collaborated with Ferrell on his website Funny Or Die. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Will Ferrell is such a national treasure that even when his more personal movies don't quite gel, there's something marvelous about them anyway. "Casa de mi Padre" is, like many of his projects, a guileless prank. It's in Spanish, a language that Ferrell didn't speak until a few months before he started shooting.
He plays Armando Alvarez, a tender, simple-minded Mexican cowboy, overshadowed in his father's eyes by his flashy, allegedly brainier brother Raul, played by Diego Luna. The film is a cheerfully tacky, semi-reenactment in the style of the movie "Airplane!," of micro-budget Spanish telenovelas with their famously bad fake sets and rear screen projection.
You also get slow motion, splattery shootouts in the style of director Sam Peckinpah that are meant to be parodies, but are so much a part of the language of modern westerns, that they're not especially funny.
"Casa de mi Padre" opens with a full head of steam, with Christina Aguilera getting all Shirley Bassey on a title song with screaming "Goldfinger" horns. It's both satirical and thrilling, which is, come to think of it, also true of John Barry's "Goldfinger" theme.
But watching the middle-aged, rather bland-looking Caucasian Ferrell sit atop a horse and speak Spanish with halting earnestness, you might get the feeling you're watching a joke that isn't panning out, or at least producing more than muted laughs. Ferrell can't do his usual inspired improvising in a language he's struggling merely to remember. He over-enunciates words like muchacho, as in muchacho, and lets the unfamiliar language twist his features into unfamiliar expressions with plenty of eyebrow curling. But mostly, he plays it straight, throwing the ball to his Mexican co-stars.
They are a terrific bunch though. Along with Diego Luna, comes Luna's frequent co-star Gael Garcia Bernal, as Onza, a chain-smoking, homicidal drug kingpin who seeks to possess Sonia, the movie's muchacho muy bonita, played by Genesis Rodriguez, daughter of Venezuelan singing star and telenovela actor Jose Luis Rodriguez, AKA La Puma, who's on the soundtrack.
Ferrell himself sings a rousing number with a great trumpet solo by Mitch Manker called "Yo No Se," with comic sidekicks Efren Ramirez and Adrian Martinez.
And even though I've said the laughs are muted, I laugh as I think back on them, small running gags like Armando's pathetic inability to roll a cigarette. Here's an example of the odd humor. Armando and his sidekicks are cackling over the physical attributes of Sonia, who suddenly shows up and asks what's funny? Armando says he's sorry, he can't tell her, because they were laughing about her. The mixture of chivalry and idiocy is almost touching.
Later, there's a sex scene that's a long, lyrical soft-focused montage of the lovers' bare butts. That's it, just butts.
Reportedly, Will Ferrell had the idea for "Casa de mi Padre" kicking around in his head for a few years. It appealed to him as a kind of non-sequitur. Why would one of Hollywood's biggest comedy stars make a movie in Spanish? When you think about it, it is audacious. The comedy multiplex audience will be forced to read subtitles. The film reaches out to a huge swath of the population, Spanish speakers, where Ferrell grew up and still lives.
Underneath all the silliness, the premise even accommodates social commentary. There's a hilarious critique when Ferrell's Armando talks about fat, lazy Americans addicted to burgers and grease, who's need to get high fuels the carnage just over their border.
Sociology and a butt montage, yes, I'd be happy with more comedies that don't quite gel like "Casa de mi Padre."
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @NPRFreshAir. And you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.