It may seem crazy to put both Will Ferrell’s and Bertolt Brecht’s names on the same line. What in the world could an offbeat American comedian have in common with a deceased German playwright and satirist? The answer is Casa de Mi Padre, Ferrell’s attempt to crossover into the Spanish-language movie market.
Considered “absurdly daffy” by some critics, the movie is the kind of story that Brecht would have love to write and direct — should he be alive today, of course. It’s the story of Armando Alvarez (Memo Fierro, a.k.a Will Ferrell), the dumb son of a Mexican rancher (Pedro Almendáriz Jr) whose ancestral lands risk a takeover by a Mexican drug lord (Gael García Bernal). Forced by external circumstances — and the love of a complicated Mexican beauty (Genesis Rodríguez) —, Armando engaged in a battle with the boss of a powerful drug cartel and an ambitious and self-righteous American DEA agent (Nick Offerman). At the end, the Force wins and the Dark Side loses.
It’s probably an understatement to say that Casa de Mi Padre is a huge pastiche, with clear allusions to a variety of genres — from telenovelas to spaghetti Westerns and American pulp fiction. Nonetheless, being a pastiche is not its most remarkable quality. What is really remarkable about this movie is the way in which different diegetic levels intrude each other all the time. There is, for instance, this love-making scene in which Armando and Sonia appear touching and kissing each other until her naked body is replaced at the end with a mannequin. Also, when Armando and his friends get to town searching for his brother, we don’t see him driving his car but a small scale model of the town with toy cars moving around. At the end, the effect is very similar to Brecht’s famous Verfremdungseffekt or “alienation/distancing effect.” The movie doesn’t make any effort to fool its audiences. It wants them to know the truth right away from the beginning — in which Ferrell is shown carrying a dummy calf.
With this “distancing effect,” audiences are reminded all the time that what they are seeing isn’t real but a simulacra. And, most importantly, they are reminded of the fact that behind this simulacra a more interesting sub-text remains hidden. In this sense, Armando’s goofy epic isn’t really his but that of Mexico’s tragic war on drugs. Mexico’s epic is what the movie is all about. And that’s why I think Brecht would have loved the story very much.