At a recent test screening in New York for Will Ferrell's new film Casa de Mi Padre, opening this weekend nationwide, the director Matt Piedmont surprised the audience by inviting Will Ferrell into the room to say a few words. Ferrell, in a baseball cap and sweatshirt, deadpanned that he fulfilled a lifelong career goal "to make an entirely Spanish language film," before he cobbled together, "Mi pelicula es muy divertante." Staring undaunted into the theater, he added, "I actually don't speak Spanish. That's why this movie is so amazing... because I don't speak Spanish." Since 60% of the audience likely did not speak Spanish either, and those that did applauded his bona fide effort, everyone now itched to see what a souped-up satire of the Mexican telenovela world would look like with a 6-foot, English-speaking gringo at the helm. The lights dimmed, and trumpets sounded.
Christina Aguilera, appearing only as a pair of glossy red lips, belts out the film's anthem as the opening credits roll. Pulpy, bright cutouts and filters present a roster of Mexican stars like Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Pedro Armendariz, and Genesis Rodriguez. The opening credits also introduce the film's prevailing aesthetic: pop, graphic Mexican, with consistent, over the top artificiality. This is later exemplified in scenes using unabashedly flimsy sets dressed with fake plants and populated by robotic stuffed animals and mannequins. A model with miniature buildings and cars is even used to depict the main town. Filters and visual effects also prove key in parodying the more theatrical and musical aspects of Mexican film and television, which often veer into melodrama -- those notorious, intense stares into the camera, the endless deathbed monologues, the crushing embraces. In one scene, Ferrell and Rodriguez just sing "Lalalalalala" to each other as the camera alternately zooms on their faces, then Rodriguez fails to mount a horse. Perhaps the most extreme stylistic sequence is a colorful montage concerning a magical white mountain tiger's gift to Ferrell's character, Armando. Unlike Ferrell's other screwball comedies, which all share bizarre elements powered by his eccentric humor, the incoherence in Casa its full adoption and complete satirization of pulpy Mexican drama strung together by failed transitions, or complete lapses, creates not only a shameless caricature of telenovela culture and the drug violence on the U.S.-Mexican border, but also a truly absurdist contemporary comedy. Designed to appear as if it was a rushed amateur effort, the film is silly, but far from unintentional.
The plot seems secondary to the movie's style, because it serves mostly as a foundation for its more engrossing and outlandish aspects. In northern Mexico, Armando Alvarez (Ferrell), is the land-loving but buffoonish brother of the Alvarez family, ranch owners whose property is now the stomping, or slaughtering, grounds for one of the most dangerous drug lords in the country, Onza (Bernal). To take charge of the ranch, the Alvarez patriarch, Miguel (Armendariz), invites the wiser son, Raul (Luna), who is engaged to the ravishing Sonia (Rodriguez), to return home. Yet Raul's return to the ranch brings even more violence from Onza, and tension among the family as Armando questions whether Sonia actually loves Raul or is simply chasing his wallet. Armando's world is shattered when he learns that Raul is a drug dealer himself, battling with Onza for control of the region. To make matters worse, police corruption abounds on both sides of the U.S. border, as an arrogant American agent and Mexican cop conspire to seize the Alvarez land. It thereby falls on Armando's shoulders to protect not only the family land, but keep the family itself intact as the tormenta de mierda showers them with more bullets, betrayal, and greed. How do you meld an apparently substantial plot with an absurdist style, with a magical, robotic tiger?
That is the charm of Casa de Mi Padre -- you can't. Amidst solid performances from all of the actors, and its dramatic plot, the film becomes a farce not only of Mexican soapiness, but of itself. Mid-film, a letter by a camera assistant scrolls down, describing an epic tiger fight scene gone awry, why that footage cannot legally be shown, and why in lieu of it we are watching stuffed animals on an empty set. These are the moments intended to hilariously but forcibly remove you from the story. Because this film is not about the story as much as celebrating the unity of the visual and thematic excess of Mexican melodrama with Ferrell's slapstick, bizarre and often dark humor. I recommend seeing Casa de Mi Padre for its strangeness, for its unapologetic satire, and its ability to ultimately render something as terrifying and gristly as warring Mexican drug cartels utterly ridiculous. And because Will Ferrell does not, in his words, actually speak Spanish. Lastly, a love of gunfights, fake blood, and/or Canadian slims is not required, but will certainly help.