Will Ferrell is used to being the centre of attention. In the comic persona he’s developed with writer-director Adam McKay, he inflates his diaphragm – and his ego –before bellowing gaseous exhalations of cartoonish machismo and rage. He’s the pinnacle of male insecurity, whether he’s playing Ron Burgundy in McKay’s Anchorman (2004) or meek cop Allen Gamble in The Other Guys (2010).
On the fringes of his career, though, Ferrell has been experimenting with an inversion of this setup, taking on the role of the (relative) straight man in a world gone crazy. This shift can be seen most clearly in Casa de Mi Padre.
The actor conceived Casa with two of his former Saturday Night Live writers, Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele, with Piedmont directing. A parody of Mexican telenovelas, the movie is entirely in Spanish, which Ferrell speaks with a halting deliberation. The comedy comes not from the incongruity of his presence in a foreign-language production, though, but from the intentionally shoddy filmmaking, which includes mismatched eyelines, mannequin extras and not-so-special effects.
Ferrell plays his character, Armando Alvarez, with a restrained naïveté. The one good-hearted son of dying patriarch Miguel Ernesto (the final performance by the late Pedro Armendariz Jr), Armando is trying to save the family ranch from notorious kingpin Onza (Gael García Bernal), who has brought Armando’s brother, Raul (Diego Luna), into his gang.
García Bernal and Luna take on Ferrell’s usual puffed-up masculinity role, sucking down cigarettes and entering rooms with the cocky swagger of Ricky Bobby from Talladega Nights. Instead of selling jokes with his Burgundy bluster, Ferrell here does quieter, more physical work. He couldn’t improvise for one simple reason: he can’t speak Spanish. As Piedmont told website IndieLondon: ‘Will is the best improviser in the world, but he couldn’t do it on this. So the challenge was to adapt his physicality and acting style and rein in some of his more obvious inclinations.’ The most successful running gag has him continually fail at rolling a smoke, as his meaty paws reduce it to a tangled mass of tobacco. It’s a joke that could work in a silent slapstick comedy – a contrast to the verbal insanity of the McKay-Ferrell productions.
Ferrell seems likely to return to his outsize persona in The Campaign (hopefully coming to the UAE this autumn) and Anchorman 2 (2013), but Casa de Mi Padre suggests an intriguing alternate path. It shows him trying to tailor his performance to a work’s style, instead of relying heavily on his usual improvisatory bulldozing. In Casa, continuity errors, Holy Mountain homages and ridiculous props get as many laughs as the mild-mannered hero.
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