International Western Films: Casa de mi Padre (2012)

It’s hard to discuss “Casa de mi Padre,” a Will Ferrell film the insists it's actually a Mexican cowboy telenovela, without discussing idioms. And I am not just talking about the idioms of the Spanish-language, limited-run soap operas that fill Latin American airwaves, which “Casa” spoofs. No, I am talking about comedy itself, which can be so idiomatic that the comedy of one region or historical era might be incomprehensible to another.

"Casa" is an example of an avant garde sort of comedy that is very nearly anti-comedy, similar in spirit to the work done by graduates of “The State” and by the Tim and Eric Show. These are comics who eschew, and sometimes completely reject, typical comic idioms. There can be an experimental quality to this work, as though the artists are deliberately trying to create new idioms for humor, and daring us to find their work funny even when it does not take any form we recognize as funny.

I would say “Casa” does something else. Its creators, director Matt Piedmont and writer Andrew Steele, seem genuinely obsessed with the physical details of the telenovela, including the form’s trashy obsession with infidelity and criminality, its often minuscule budget (and the tricks it uses to work its way around budget constraints, including extensive use of slow motion), and its cowboy-cum-drug-lord sense of costume and set design. This is a film that manages to both look great and ridiculous: a drug lord, played with boyish enthusiasm by Gael García Bernal, wears a white suit, red shirt, gold chain, and white cowboy boots; he looks fantastic. He also smokes two long cigarettes simultaneously.

Everybody in this film smokes. Will Ferrell, playing a dense but honorable ranchero, rolls his own cigarettes, and does so badly. His brother, played by Diego Luna, only takes a cigarette out of his mouth long enough to sip from an ever-present cocktail, which he clutches even during a gunfight. The film is indulgent with these details. Sometimes it stops everything just to watch somebody smoke.

It also rarely tips its hat to the fact that it is satire — it’s been a long time since I have seen a film this deadpan. Yes, Will Ferrell speaks Spanish throughout the film, but he does so with as much competence as he can muster. It’s imperfect, but, then, the non-Spanish speaker Eric Estrada was a castmember on “Rosa salvaje,” a Spanish-language show, speaking dialogue that was fed to him through an earphone. There is precedent for imperfect Spanish, and Ferrell never plays his Spanish for laughs.

This is a comedy, instead, of genre exaggeration. If a love scene in an actual Telenovela will consist mostly of relatively tame images of hands stroking bodies, “Casa” responds with a love scene that consists of an inventory of buttock grasps. If telenovelas often feature dummies in costume as background actors, this is a film where the dummies show up at dinner tables, or wedding scenes, or, well, love scenes, prominently displayed.

"Casa" is a comedy of missed eyelines, hand-painted sets, and crew reflections caught in mirrored shades. These deliberate errors are presented lovingly, rather than mockingly. The clumsiest effect, a white jungle cat that is supposed to be Ferrell’s spirit guide, looks entirely artificial, like an articulated child’s toy. That being said, it’s made by the Henson Creature Shop, and is sort of awesome, with expressive eyebrows and bared fangs. The film takes an obvious pleasure in the genuinely glorious qualities of low-budget filmmaking, where there is sometimes a thin line between cheap artificiality and folk art.

The studios seemed like they’re not sure what to make of this film, offering it in limited release, which is sometimes a way of testing material that has them buffaloed to see if there is an audience for it. There wasn't, really, but the film only cost $6 million to make and made a $2 million profit, which is pocket change for Hollywood.

But even if large audiences steered clear of the decidedly idiosyncratic pleasures of this film, it’s worthwhile to have studios occasionally take risks on movies that draw from different wells than your typical Hollywood fare, and hav
e filmmakers who feel free to satirize popular artistic forms that are a bit outside Hollywood’s often myopic gaze.

The telenovela is not an obscure form in America; neither are the ascetics that this film both celebrates and sends up. The Spanish language station Univision, as an example, ranks as the fifth most popular in the United States, and is even more popular among young adults.

But the content they produce, including their hundreds of enormously popular telenovelas, might as well be invisible to the American entertainment industry. This is a sort of cultural blindness that is often maddening — after all, the entertainment industry is located in a city that is 47 percent Hispanic, and where it is possible to walk off the set of a film or television show in downtown LA and buy brain tacos, statues of santos, and Mexican wrestling masks, all on the same block.

So viva “Casa de mi Padre.” Viva la telenovela!


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