Will Ferrell's brand of comedy typically comes in one of two varieties: cluelessly swaggering or just clueless. There's really no telling which he'll go with next, or how it will play, even with indulgent audiences. Why does "Anchorman" work when "Get Hard" doesn't?
Casting dynamics dictate that Ferrell opts for dweeby in his latest, "Daddy's Home." The movie reteams him with Mark Wahlberg, who also played cool opposite Ferrell's fool in the 2010 cop comedy "The Other Guys." Here they're dueling for the affection of the kids that biological dad Dusty (Wahlberg) has neglected and unappreciated stepdad Brad (Ferrell) cherishes. The musings on parenting aren't nearly as unhinged as the race and sexuality satire Ferrell attempted in "Get Hard," but you'll be glad for the comparatively milder, funnier diversion.
Brad is giddy about life with his loving new wife, Sara (Linda Cardellini), and her two young children (Owen Vaccaro and Scarlett Estevez), even if the kids' crayon-scribbled family portraits always show something awful befalling him. But just when Brad seems to be making a little progress — pardon his sensitive-guy tears of joy — Sara's studly ex, Dusty, breezes back into town. The contrast is pronounced, to say the least. Dusty lives like a motorcycle-riding rock star who can also bang out a boss treehouse in a couple of hours. Brad is great at, um, navigating the school drop-off line in the morning.
Director Sean Anders ("Horrible Bosses 2") gets decent mileage out of the disastrously reckless extremes Ferrell's character is driven to by this sudden rivalry. Skating that backyard half-pipe Dusty whipped up? Bad idea. There are also some amusing drier bits, like Wahlberg's head-gamer spinning bedtime stories about mean old stepkings and such.
But don't mistake this for family comedy, juvenilia notwithstanding. Brad's visit to Dusty's buddy the fertility doctor (Bobby Cannavale) isn't exactly all-audiences material, and neither is Dusty's fatherly advice about standing up to schoolyard bullies (read: dishing out a B-word-peppered beatdown). Consider it a predictable movie with flashes of unpredictability, one that actually coaxes some early laughs with, yes, scatological wit, then makes us groan when it shamefully takes the low road back to poopville a bit later on. Oh, the things that a dad — or would-be dad — has to deal with.
★ ★ ½
Directed by Sean Anders. Written by Brian Burns, Anders, and John Morris.
Starring Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini.
At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 96 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements, crude and suggestive material, language).
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.