Is Will Ferrell past the point of no return?

Judging from his work in 2015 — including the new movie, Daddy’s Home — Ferrell may be entering the Chevy-Chase-in-Funny-Farm career spiral.

Ferrell and Wahlberg
Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg Daddy’s Home

A-list comedy careers don’t last forever. Most actors who rise to toplining major comedies get about 10 or 15 years of solid, two-film-a-year work before a reinvention is required.

It’s been about a decade since Will Ferrell became a major comedy star, but his work in the last couple of years points to a certain exhaustion of the formula. Both of Ferrell’s starring vehicles this year (the other one being the prison comedy Get Hard) feel not only familiar but like they already exist — if you were to run down a quick summary of Daddy’s Home without telling someone the title or who’s in it, it would be conceivable for that person to assume they’ve already seen the movie. Familiarity doesn’t necessarily spell doom for a comedy premise, but it does bank on a certain laziness that’s pretty prevalent in Daddy’s Home, Ferrell’s reunion with Mark Wahlberg after the success of the (superior) 2010 buddy cop comedy The Other Guys.

Ferrell plays Brad Whitaker, an exec at the #3 smooth-jazz station in the U.S. Brad has always dreamed about becoming a dad, but an unfortunate incident at the dentist left him unable to conceive. He’s married to Sarah (Linda Cardellini), who has two children from a previous marriage. Try as he might, the uber-dorky Brad doesn’t get much love from his stepchildren, who still call him Mr. Whitaker and draw pictures of him with a knife in his eye and a pile of hobo poop on his head. Further complicating this is the return of their biological dad Dusty (Wahlberg), an ultra-manly, motorcycle-riding, donkey-dicked soldier of fortune who returns from parts unknown with the intention of winning back the affections of both his children and his ex-wife.

Daddy's Home Ferrell & Wahlberg

Daddy’s Home recycles the dynamic of The Other Guys by making Ferrell the almost supernaturally dorky, perpetually-on-the-verge-of-tears beta to Wahlberg’s supremely confident, leather-clad alpha. It’s a recipe that works because the leads are so comfortable in those roles, but it’s also one I’ve seen so often at this point that none of it is particularly surprising. It doesn’t help that, unlike The Other Guys, Daddy’s Home is a much more static film; there is no inherent action to the premise, so the filmmakers simply build a series of silly set pieces in which the actors get to do the things we expect of them. Daddy’s Home almost never defies expectations. The few moments it does — including a hilarious scene between Ferrell and Hannibal Buress as Wahlberg’s buddy / Ferrell’s improvisational houseguest — are really the film’s best moments. It feels a bit like a career victory lap, an exercise in giving the people what they want without asking them if they want it.

But, of course, no one gives a shit about the structure of a movie like Daddy’s Home: they care if it’s funny. The film certainly has its moments, but they almost always come from interactions outside of the central relationships. Buress gets many of the film’s biggest laughs because he functions exactly as the unpredictable force that’s lacking from both of those guys. Unlike many movies of this kind, Daddy’s Home actually gets better in the third act where every little character trait and reveal of the first two acts ultimately pays off in a climatic scene that’s actually kind of heartwarming and definitely funny — but way too much of the film involves Ferrell wiping out in some slapstick manner (riding a skateboard into electrical wires, for example, or destroying most of his home on Wahlberg’s out-of-control Harley) and writhing around in pain.

A major movie studio would never make a movie where Mark Wahlberg plays the ineffectual wimp against a macho blowhard that looks like Ferrell; the poster would be too confusing, the trailer wouldn’t test well, audiences would not be particularly enthused, but it would be the only actual way to subvert this already-mothballed film. Daddy’s Home is Ferrell slowly but surely moving towards the Chevy-Chase-in-Funny Farm part of his career, the one made of cookie-cutter vehicles that exist only to plumb the depths of the familiar. It’s not terrible, but it’s not a good sign of things to come. ■

Daddy’s Home opens in theatres on Friday, Dec. 25. Watch the trailer here: