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Non-Review Review: Daddy’s Home 2

Daddy’s Home 2 is awkward and broad, with too few laughs and too much dead air.

As the title suggests, Daddy’s Home 2 is the sequel to the similarly uninspired Daddy’s Home, in which Will Ferrell finds himself competing for the affection of his stepchildren with their biological father, played by Mark Wahlberg. Daddy’s Home 2 seeks to add some extra excitement into the mix by bringing another generation into the mix; John Lithgow joins the cast as father to Will Ferrell’s character, while Mel Gibson is cast in the role of withholding parent to Mark Wahlberg’s emotionally stunted adult.

Bad dads.

Daddy’s Home 2 largely tries to coast on the charm of these four male leads, bouncing scenarios and concepts off them. Some of these jokes are diverting, but Daddy’s Home 2 is largely free from big belly laughs. Outside of a couple of very effective set pieces, Daddy’s Home 2 sets itself the bar of “reasonably diverting.” The film occasionally stumbles past that, but there is never a sense of Daddy’s Home 2 has been honed or crafted. Even at ninety-six minutes, the movie feels bloated and over-extended.

Daddy’s Home 2 tries to paper over its weaknesses with an emphasis on the charm of its four leading performers, most shamelessly in its final act when Will Ferrell all but addresses the audience directly as he sings the praises of the cinema as a communal experience in which people might be alone with everybody. Daddy’s Home 2 is a film that never pushes itself too hard, content to wallow in its own mediocrity.

It’s not that funny.

For a broad improvisational comedy that hinges on the chemistry between its four male leads, Daddy’s Home 2 has a lot of exposition. Indeed, characters spend entire scenes having conversations designed to set up twists that are due to land in the third act. The central tension between Will Ferrell’s Brad and John Lithgow’s Don is helpful discussed twice before it is actually acknowledged, which means that the big dramatic confrontation carries no real weight because the other members of the cast have already hashed it out.

However, this burdensome exposition is not confined to plot of character dynamics. Daddy’s Home 2 is never particularly inventive in its humour, often falling back on stock comedy set pieces. In fact, one of the film’s biggest laughs comes from a rehash of a similar gag in Daddy’s Home, something all but tacitly acknowledged by Mark Wahlberg’s Dusty when he discusses the scene in question. However, Daddy’s Home 2 spends a lot of its runtime explaining jokes that didn’t land the first time around, as if repeating the gag might clue the audience in.

One of these sweaters has the best joke in the film.

Towards the climax, there is a recurring gag where a particular character is pelted with snowballs repeatedly and accidentally. Over the course of the scene, the character gets hit in the head by a number of errant snowballs that were either aimed at other characters or carelessly discarded. It is a familiar gag, and Daddy’s Home 2 sets it to the classic comedy rule of three. However, after the third inadvertent collision, Mel Gibson’s Kurt takes a moment to reflect, “Guy’s like a snowball magnet.” It’s a line that adds nothing to the scene, except to articulate the physical comedy.

Indeed, Kurt spends a lot of Daddy’s Home 2 playing the role of Greek Chorus to the sequel’s events, perhaps owing to the fact that Mel Gibson makes for a more effective straight man than any of the other three credited leads. During the movie’s most effective set piece, when a rogue implement unleashes chaos on the family residence, another observer inquires, “Why would he let it go?” Kurt chuckles to himself, “Because he is an idiot.” Kurt is recording the gag on his phone for posterity, positioning him as an audience for the hilarity unfolding around him.

Reading the signs.

In many ways, Kurt is the most important character in Daddy’s Home 2. He is positioned as something of an outsider to this family unit, an observer who is confused and astounded by the absurdity around him. Most notably, he has been absent from the family dynamic for years. Daddy’s Home 2 seems to position Kurt as an audience surrogate, often focusing on his reactions to and commentary upon the hilarity of the other three major characters. Given how heavily Daddy’s Home 2 leans on the fourth wall, this puts Kurt in a surprisingly central position.

However, Kurt is more than just a passive observer. Kurt is a proven manipulator. He spends most of the movie undermining the relationship between Brad and Dusty, chipping away at their various insecurities in order to pit them against one another for his own sadistic amusement. If Kurt is an audience surrogate, he is a malicious one, one who “stirs the turd” in order to generate the comedy that he likes to watch. However, there is also a sense that Kurt is grounded and anchored in a way that the other characters in the film are not.

Reflection time.

Daddy’s Home 2 cracks jokes about Kurt’s womanising and unreliability, but the movie also seems oddly in love with the character. “He looks like he was carved out of the Rock of Gibraltar,” Brad muses on watching Kurt descend the escalator in the airport. Kurt’s ability to pick up beautiful women half his age is treated as something close to aspirational. More to the point, the film only inches towards a happy resolution when various characters start following Kurt’s macho and unvarnished advice.

There is something very cynical and uncomfortable in this, even beyond the metatextual element of casting Mel Gibson as Kurt. Kurt reacts with horror to the unconventional masculinity of Brad and Don, his entire role in the film little than an expression of “these guys, am I right?” Kurt flinches when Brad uses the words “gender neutral” and accuses him of waging a “War on Christmas.” Even when Kurt isn’t speaking, the film seems to align with his world view. “Friendzone” is used unironically. Sara advises Brad, “Don’t be a snowflake.”

To Mel and back.

Indeed, Daddy’s Home 2 repeatedly marginalises its female characters to focus on this reinforcement of conventional masculinity. As with Daddy’s Home, Linda Cardellini is incredibly game in the role of Sara, Brad’s put-upon wife and Dusty’s exasperated ex-wife. However, Cardellini is left fighting for scraps with focus given over to the male characters and their stories. Indeed, Daddy’s Home 2 very consciously makes a point to bring three more major male characters into the mix, while adding only one new paper-thin female character.

Daddy’s Home 2 is never focused enough that these problems build to critical mass, never coherent enough in its approach to these characters that they escalate from troublesome to problematic. Daddy’s Home 2 is occasionally uncomfortable, but seldom infuriating. There is an ambient unsettling quality to the film, a hum in the background that never drowns out the broad and familiar comedy tropes. Daddy’s Home 2 is not awful, but perhaps only because it doesn’t try hard enough.

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