rating: 3When the biggest movie star on the planet decides to end his four year hiatus from movie screens by making a tired sequel for a forgotten franchise nobody really liked that much in the first place, you really have to applaud the biggest comedy star of his generation for taking the time to do something comparatively obscure and yet - in the scheme of things - much more ambitious. Whilst you shouldn't need any prodding to guess the identity of the former, the latter is Will Ferrell with his niche Spanish-language comedy Casa de mi Padre (The House of My Father): a small film with little distribution future, parodying Mexican "telenovela" soap operas unfamiliar to great swathes of the cinema going public. It's not an especially lucrative move (the film struggled to make back even its modest budget in the US), yet it's required a great deal of effort from an actor who had to learn a new language. Of course, the two actors and their respective career choices are not really related at all, but there is something infinitely more satisfying and interesting about Ferrell's use of star power compared to Will Smith's. The pleasures of Casa de mi Padre are easy enough to identify: obviously fake sets, outrageous bits of product placement, and the incongruous faux earnestness of Ferrell in the lead role, all within the stylistic framework of an over the top Mexican TV melodrama. Some of the gags are broad and silly, such as when Ferrell's humble ranch worker goes to lift a real sheep only to very obviously end up with a stuffed animal in his arms, whilst others are more subtle and require an appreciation for affectionate formal pastiche. Director Matt Piedmont, a former writer for Ferrell on Saturday Night Live, nails the aesthetic - which is vital to making all the jokes work. Make no mistake this film is 90% about the look, with Ferrell largely playing the straight man (albeit in inherently funny fashion) within this bizarre and heightened reality. It also helps that the supporting cast boasts the two most charismatic contemporary Mexican movie stars: Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna as a pair of total jerks. The Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau of Mexican cinema, Bernal and Luna match Ferrell in terms of how they intuitively strike the perfect balance between earnestly playing out the drama and milking its ridiculousness for laughs. Bernal, lighting multiple cigars ("Canada Slims!") in his mouth whilst striking an otherwise serious pose, is paricularly brilliant as an evil and debauched drug Barron. They also help to prevent the whole endeavor from feeling like Americans picking on Mexico - there's no point at which Casa de mi Padre seems anything other than respectful and good-natured. In fact if the filmmakers make jabs at anybody over its brisk 84 minutes it's US border officials, as represented by Nick Offerman's racist DEA officer. The film is also buoyed by the film debut of the instantly appealing Génesis Rodríguez: a real-life star of telenovela and American daytime soap opera who is charm personified as Ferrell's feisty love interest. The only thing standing between Casa de mi Padre and comedy greatness is that it's just a little too slight. It doesn't offer as many big belly-laughs as it should given the setting, personnel and concept - usually content to provoke a broad grin of acknowledgement, but falling short of all-out hilarity in all but a handful of scenes. As it stands it's a winsome curiosity rather than a perfect movie. It's consistently fun though, and it's so great to see a movie star take a risk, if a small one. That's not to suggest Ferrell's career is in any way jeopardised if Casa de mi Padre falls flat on its ass - it's blatantly a quirky passion project rather than his next big comedy vehicle (this isn't Anchorman 2) - but I'm sure he could have done something far less interesting for a ton more money.
Casa de mi Padre is on general release in the UK from June 8th.