If this year has suggested anything, it’s that there’s a statute of limitations on tolerance of scandalous behavior in the movie world. A month before sexual abuse reports cratered Harvey Weinstein’s career and legacy, Victor Salva had a new Jeepers Creepers movie in theaters. This week, just as Kevin Spacey is being replaced in one major Christmas release, here’s Mel Gibson co-starring in another, in which he buys a little girl a gun and tells a little boy to kiss a girl he likes and “smack her on the caboose.”
Inappropriateness, of course, is part and parcel of screen comedy, but there’s something a little queasy about seeing Gibson indulge in this kind of thing for wacky laughs. His casting in Daddy’s Home 2 is clearly intended to call back to his notorious actions of several years back, which might have worked better if the humor attending his role derived from an actual dimensional character, rather than simply trading on Gibson’s past shenanigans. It might also seem less dubious if Daddy’s Home 2 had the courage of its politically incorrect convictions to be a truly scabrous Christmas satire on the order of Bad Santa, but this being a major mainstream comedy, it wraps everything up in a big ball of gooey sentiment, in which the onscreen redemption of Gibson’s character seems intended to provide him the same redemption offscreen.
So beyond this controversial casting, how’s the rest of Daddy’s Home 2? Just a slight improvement on the first film, which wasted a strong comedic premise and two very well-matched leads on crudely conceived and executed domestic farce. The crudity continues in the sequel, though it begins in a place of pleasing tranquility as stepdad Brad (Will Ferrell) and biological father Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) have gotten the “co-parenting” thing with preteen children Dylan (Owen Vaccarro) and Megan (Scarlett Estevez) down to a science. One sticking point has been shuttling the kids back and forth on holidays, so the duo decide to have a “together Christmas” with the kids’ mother Sara (Linda Cardellini), Dusty’s new wife Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio) and her cell-phone-addicted daughter Adriana (Didi Costine). Throwing a monkey wrench into the plans for a peaceful get-together is the arrival of the guys’ polar-opposite fathers: Dylan’s macho dad Kurt (Gibson) and Brad’s touchy-feely pop Don (John Lithgow). Karen’s ex-hubby Roger (John Cena) also eventually returns, expanding on his brief turn in the original, to add to the hoped-for fun.
That’s one crowded house (even though most of the movie takes place in an expansive vacation home in the mountains), and director/co-writer Sean Anders’ job is more like a traffic cop keeping all the subplots and conflicts moving along. Needless to say, Brad and Dusty’s peaceful co-existence is fated to break down, in part because Kurt, as the dialogue keeps reminding us, is determined to drive a wedge between them. Meanwhile, Brad keeps getting into slapstick accidents with a voice-activated shower, a hungry snowblower, etc., and while Ferrell is an ace at this sort of slapshtick, connoisseurs of Christmas comedy will likely come to the conclusion that Chevy Chase had a better vehicle for it in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Daddy’s Home 2 does score a few big laughs here and there, though they’re weighted toward the last half hour, which gives the movie the feeling of being better than it actually is. The actors are all game, and give it their best shots, though sadly, the male actors get a lot more shots than the women. The gifted Cardellini is once again criminally underused, with an obvious bone thrown her way in the form of a pointless mini-subplot with Karen, whose one trait is haughtiness. (Anyone who wants to see moms get substantial parts in a Christmas laffer this season will have to venture to another auditorium.) Anders and co-scripter John Morris’ tact is generally crass and unsubtle in its approach to both humor and sentiment, as a few inevitable sad secrets come tumbling out in an attempt to give the film some weight before it proceeds into its feel-good last act.
That portion inexplicably takes the action away from the house and into a multiplex, where there’s much plugola for a certain theater chain and a weird onscreen plea for the magic of going to the movies. The main attraction at this cinema is a Liam Neeson Yuletide action movie called Missile Tow (“Get hitched this Christmas!”) that the extended brood sits down to watch. Although we only hear it—complete with vocal cameo by Neeson—the flick that Brad, Dusty et al. are viewing seems at that point to be a lot more fun than the one we are.