What’s Mel Gibson doing in movies again? After deciding collectively as a culture to disavow a guy who’s said that “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world” and who threatened his ex-wife with racially insensitive threats of sexual assault, does one milquetoast World War II movie really get him back in the good graces of Hollywood, much less at the center of a treacly family comedy?
Perhaps it’s telling that the Gibson question is at the forefront of one’s mind when watching Daddy’s Home 2, the tinsel-tossed sequel to the Will Ferrell–Mark Wahlberg 2015 comedy. After all, there’s little else to occupy your mind otherwise. Like the first, the film dabbles with some interesting ideas about the complicated makeup of 21st-century families, and the new and confusing responsibilities entailed in shared fatherhood, which is at least mildly admirable. With these modest expectations in mind, Daddy’s Home 2 might offer some reasonable cinematic diversion for the holidays, if you can swallow some heaping helpings of Christmas sweetness mixed with the tone-deaf inclusion of one of Hollywood’s biggest scumbags.
A few months after the events of the first film, stepdad Brad (Ferrell) and bio-dad Dusty (Wahlberg) have settled into a smooth equilibrium as “co-dads” of their children by Brad’s wife Sara (Linda Cardellini). However, with the kids expressing resentment at having to split the holidays between Mom and Dad, the family decides to plan a “together Christmas” at a palatial log cabin Airbnb. The twist? Brad and Dusty’s dads – the fussy, over-affectionate Roger (John Lithgow) and alpha-male pig Kurt (Gibson), respectively – come along, dragging old resentments to the forefront and threatening the uneasy peace this expanded 21st-century family has cultivated. Mostly, though, it just provides plenty of excuses to hit Will Ferrell in the crotch with something.
Adam McKay’s cop comedy The Other Guys, at its best, showcased Ferrell and Wahlberg as a deceptively hilarious pair of childlike bros, and glimmers of that charm show here, now that their rivalry from the first Daddy is largely resolved. Wahlberg’s preschool lilt is on full display as he geeks out with Ferrell, who still plays his elven sensitivity with expert timing. God bless them, they throw volumes of energy at even the lamest gags, even here. The physical comedy is still embarrassingly broad, shooting for Christmas Vacation-level hijinks (electrocution, being dragged by an out-of-control snowblower, etc.) without the sly cynical streak that made that film a classic. When Clark Griswold survives a life-threatening event involving Christmas decorations, it hardens his heart toward the holidays; for Ferrell’s Brad Whitaker, it’s just another day of death-defying clumsiness to be shrugged off by the next scene. One wishes writer-director Sean Anders could trust his leads’ crackerjack chemistry to carry the day, instead of leaning on weak fall-down-go-boom antics.
However, the addition of their dads, Lithgow especially, spices up the proceedings in unexpectedly amusing ways. Lithgow’s lovey-dovey dad is the kind of guy who loved being a postal worker, and takes the flights with the most connections so he can “talk to as many new people as possible.” His beaming, obnoxious generosity is a real highlight. Gibson, meanwhile, is a crusty old chauvinist, his curled upper lip struggling against his dentures as he mocks his son’s newfound sensitivity and encourages his granddaughter to buy a gun. He’s the main agent of chaos in the film, needling Brad and Dusty to fight, if only to shake up Dusty’s newfound softness. The film leans hard into Gibson’s real-life reactionary persona, which becomes disquietingly effective. He’s a bit too good at playing a right-wing nut job.
Between the four men at the center of the film (and a bit part from John Cena as yet another overbearing stepdad, returning from the first), Daddy’s Home 2 works best when it focuses on ironing out the issues between this group of tangentially-related dads. It’s occasionally refreshing when Anders mines these characters for genuinely bittersweet comedy. Brad inadvertently learns of his parents’ divorce through a miscalculated decision to let his dad do improv, while the big family breakdown moment happens during their nativity play, insults and snowballs being thrown while gussied up in Bethlehem cosplay. Apart from these fleeting moments of clever inspiration, Daddy’s Home 2 only slightly improves on the first movie’s surface-level exploration of modern family dynamics.
This intermittent goodwill is flushed down the toilet by the end, when Daddy’s Home 2 remembers that it has to close out with a heaping helping of Christmas schmaltz. The film ends with a cringe-inducing plea to celebrate Christmas with your loved ones, all set to an a cappella version of “Do They Know It’s Christmastime?”, because the movie apparently decides that you didn’t hate it enough. Adding to the confusion, Daddy’s Home 2 also works in a climactic message about going to the movie theater more often, and how that’s the real Christmas, I guess? (Paramount must be feeling those record-low box office grosses right now, so they’ve resorted to begging us to go out and see movies in their own movies.) Even an inspired bit about the movie they end up seeing – a Christmas-themed Liam Neeson action film titled Missile Tow – doesn’t salvage the ending from laying a big yule log of buyer’s remorse on viewers by the time the credits roll.
Daddy’s Home 2 wants points for exploring the ever-expanding family tree in a Christmas comedy, but it only barely succeeds. Lithgow’s delightful grandpa offers a welcome diversion from the madness, but those moments are as fleeting as the plate of cookies left out for Santa on Christmas Eve. Mostly, it’s still the same ball of sophistry that made the first so unbearable to watch, even with Ferrell and Wahlberg’s crackerjack chemistry.