By Owen Gleiberman
America, as we know, is a rabidly divided nation. But when it comes to dramatizing the cultural/ideological chasm, the blockbuster era of Hollywood comedy was way ahead of the curve. Town versus gown. The slobs versus the squares. The by-the-book straight-arrow cop versus his reckless, crazy-ass, trash-the-rules partner. Or, just two years ago in Daddy’s Home, Will Ferrell as the agonizingly polite and “evolved” milquetoast stepfather Brad Whitaker versus Mark Wahlberg as the proudly macho and non-coddling divorced delinquent Dusty Mayron, who set out to prove to Brad that real dads don’t cry.
The battle played out in predictably pat, occasionally funny ways. And though that should mean, in theory, that there isn’t much ground left for the sequel to cover, Daddy’s Home 2, a boisterously formulaic and designed-by-committee holiday comedy, enjoys a certain leg up in timing. It arrives at a moment when the crackling voltage of the culture wars — blue state vs. red state, Trump haters vs. Trump lovers — is coursing through every fiber of the nation. This means that a film like Daddy’s Home 2, in its stupido-on-purpose way, can seem almost relevant in its trivial hit-or-miss yocks.
Brad, still the kind of fussbudget who adds licorice root to his hot cocoa, has settled with Dusty into the genial, fist-bumping state of being “co-dads.” The two have convinced themselves that they’re best friends — which means, of course, that they’re certain to wind up at each other’s throats. But the director, Sean Anders, working once again from a script he co-wrote with Brian Burns and John Morris, knows that we’ve seen that movie before. So he ratchets up the comic tension, or attempts to, by introducing the two men’s own intrusive and annoying dads, who show up to help the entire extended, divorced, and remarried clan celebrate Christmas.
Brad’s father, Don (John Lithgow), is even more of a well-meaning wuss than his son. He greets Brad at the airport with a big wet kiss on the lips, and Lithgow, with that voice halfway between a whine and a purr, makes him an over-enthusiastic huggy doofus purged of aggression. But then there’s Dusty’s father, Kurt, played by the redoubtable Mel Gibson, who one year after his comeback with Hacksaw Ridge now gets to be the jokey found object in a big mainstream comedy and, at the same time, play off the aspects of his image — the unapologetic misfit of toxic masculinity — that made him a pariah in the first place.
Kurt, a former Space Shuttle pilot, shows up at the airport looking as leathery as an old biker jacket, with popping eyes and a wolfish grin and hair so stiff it seems electrified by his ebullient negative energy. Gibson isn’t so easy to mock when he makes an elaborate point of satirizing himself; he’s a prankster who does macho cuckoo as well as ever. You couldn’t exactly say he breaks out of the cookie cutter of Daddy’s Home 2, but whenever he has a scene, the film bristles with more surprise than it does the rest of the time. At moments, it even veers toward Kurt’s side, if only because open-faced right-wing red-meat fire-breathing — even when it’s borderline nuts — looks, in a comic context, a little cooler than terrorized eager-beaver liberal wimpitude.
Daddy’s Home 2 delivers the outsize masochistic slapstick set pieces — think Will Ferrell at his pain freakiest crossed with Home Alone — that are a major selling point of a movie like this one. (That and feel-good nostalgic Christmas cheer!) The family, at Kurt’s suggestion, agrees to hold Christmas in a picturesque luxury home he rents on Airbnb — it’s essentially a small ski lodge — and once there, Brad takes out a snow blower, which proceeds to suck in the miles of Christmas lights that are decorating the house. He’s then goaded, by Kurt and Dusty, into cutting down a real Christmas tree (one that’s good and illegal, since it’s on public land). He winds up chainsawing a cell-phone tower, which they install and decorate at the house (for a fine of $20,000). He also gets bonked by oversize holiday decorations and, for good measure, does battle with a computerized shower.
But Daddy’s Home 2 is basically a series of cartoon psychological duels, which play out in a bowling alley, at a wild turkey shoot, and on an improv-comedy stage. Gibson stares at Lithgow as if he were a squishy alien zoo creature, but his Kurt is never more gleeful than when he’s acting like a drill sergeant toward Dusty, his own son, who could never live up to his dad’s ideal of real-men-don’t-have-feelings. The movie builds to a kind of nerds-meets-cajones détente: Dusty, deep down, is as sensitive a wounded male as Brad, whereas Brad has to learn to get in touch with his inner dickwad.
More, even, than A Bad Moms Christmas, which is also built around the war between grandparents and their adult children, Daddy’s Home 2 is the kind of holiday comedy that combines anarchy with toasty homilies. By the time John Cena shows up, as Dusty’s shoplifting Euro fashionista wife’s ex-husband, and everyone goes off to see a Liam Neeson Christmas thriller called Missile Tow, the stage is set for a snowstorm-at-the-megaplex performance of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” that provides the cathartic-punchline-for-every-actor that a movie like this one demands. You will feel good, for half a minute. The same way that you’ll chuckle, for a moment. That’s what happens when a Hollywood comedy is a Christmas present that’s all package.