In his latest study of modern masculinity in retreat, Will Ferrell plays Brad Whitaker, an earnest, weak-kneed but devoted stepfather trying to gain the love and trust of his new family when his kids’ biological dad, Dusty (Mark Wahlberg), shows up. The contrast between the two men makes for a typical, oh-so-American standoff: The doughy, dedicated family man who talks things through versus the buff, hotheaded tough-guy who gets shit done. The comedy comes not just from Brad’s inadequacy but also from the fact that Dusty, who’s been off doing a mysterious job overseas that involves “kicking ass for America,” wants his family back — not just his kids but also his beautiful ex-wife, Sara (Linda Cardellini) — and is prepared to ruin Brad in order to do so.
“What do kids need more, a father or a dad?” Brad asks in the opening scenes of the film. “Damn near everyone can be a father, but not everyone has the patience to be a dad.” The irony is that Brad can’t be a father; he’s unable to have biological kids himself, we’re told, because of a wacky dentist-office snafu. So he focuses on being the best stepdad he can be. But he’s little match for the pure, Darwinian power of Dad No. 1 and his frequently displayed pectoral muscles. As soon as Dusty arrives and insinuates himself into crashing in Brad and Sara’s garage, what progress Brad had made in getting the kids to stop drawing pictures of him with knives and poop on his head goes out the window.
Ferrell and Wahlberg previously paired up in The Other Guys, one of the great comedies of the millennium, but put aside any expectation that their latest collaboration might even come close to that sublime masterpiece. Daddy’s Home is a Christmas movie being pitched at families and children — who might have to cringe, earmuff, and/or question their way through the film’s numerous dick jokes, sterility gags, and a whole extended riff on whether it’s okay to call girls “bitches.” The kids will, however, enjoy the spectacle of Will Ferrell hanging for dear life onto a motorcycle as it flies into a house, Will Ferrell skateboarding into a mess of electric cables, and Will Ferrell getting drunk and knocking out a cheerleader with a basketball.
Daddy’s Home isn’t too bad as far as these things go. As you might have noticed, its chief asset is Ferrell’s gawky brand of slapstick humiliation, and the bright-eyed desperation with which he receives it. But he and the punchy, compact Wahlberg do make for a good team: the ambler and the hustler, the milquetoast and the motormouth. And the film does a decent job of setting both men up as potentially solid dads — one provides, the other protects — so you find yourself genuinely wondering which one, if either, will win out. That makes for some welcome narrative uncertainty in this otherwise predictable, occasionally funny, mostly forgettable bit of fluff.