Film Review: Father Figures

An embarrassing effort from first-time director Lawrence Sher.
Major Releases

Every year around Christmastime, some broad comedy wings its way into theatres in order to provide moviegoers who don’t want to see the latest Disney offering a necessary bit of counterprogramming. Last year it was Why Him?, which rode the odd-couple pairing of stuffy dad Bryan Cranston and himbo James Franco to reasonable financial success. The year before, cool guy Mark Wahlberg vs. stick-in-the-mud Will Ferrell racked up $150 million with Daddy’s Home. In 2014, we got The Interview, which…well, you remember.

The point stands: North Korean diplomacy crises aside, Christmas weekend and ribald comedies tend to be a pretty good fit. This year, Warner Bros. spins the wheel with Father Figures, about a pair of twins (Ed Helms and Owen Wilson) on the hunt for their long-thought-dead father. Originally titled Bastards, Father Figures wrapped production around two years ago; since then, it’s had its release date delayed several times. If you think that serves as a blaring neon hint that Father Figures is not a good movie, congratulations. Your intuition is solid enough to save you from one hour and 53 minutes of derivative dross.

Father Figures is the debut feature of cinematographer Lawrence Sher, who among myriad other credits shot all three of the Hangover movies. You can tell that’s the vibe he and screenwriter Justin Malen are going for here. There’s a sports personality playing himself—Terry Bradshaw, one of the candidates to be the father of uptight Peter (Helms) and beach bum Kyle (Wilson). There’s the presence of Helms himself, of course. And there are out-of-nowhere elements designed to be shocking, like—there’s no other way to say it, so I’m going to just come out with it—Owen Wilson and a young boy peeing on each other.

The problem with Father Figures is that it’s just not funny. Sher has two movies here: one a tug-at-your-heartstrings tale of estranged brothers re-forging their bond through the tried and true tactic of road-trip shenanigans, the other a gross-out comedy. The former story is so earnest and the latter so bizarre that they never come close to melding together into a coherent whole. One minute Peter bursts into anguished sobs when he thinks his brother has been killed. The next, there’s a hilarious—wait, no, I mean the opposite of that—bit where we think a woman Peter slept with might be his sister. Both of these movies are hackneyed and listless. Cramming them together is just plain headache-inducing.

Oh, and there’s a shot late in the film of a cat with absolutely massive testicles. Ha? I guess we can’t expect much better from a movie that starts with a “proctologist dislodging keys from someone’s ass” joke.

Occasionally Father Figures enjoys some sparks of energy thanks to its supporting cast. We’re talking way supporting, characters with screen time limited enough that their one-note shtick—the veterinary assistant (Ali Wong) with an unhealthy fixation on her older boss (Christopher Walken), the Irish Catholic brothers (Ryans Cartwright and Gaul) with hair triggers, the dippy mother (a criminally underused June Squibb) to another one of Kyle and Peter’s potential fathers (J.K. Simmons)—doesn’t have time to grow stale. And Katt Williams delivers laughs as a nameless hitchhiker whom the brothers pick up along their journey.

One gets the sense that these actors served themselves well despite Sher’s direction, not because of it. He certainly made no effort—at least none visible in the final product—to pull a halfway decent performance out of Wilson, who’s practically sleepwalking. To be fair, he doesn’t exactly have a good script or a good character on his side. Kyle is a carbon copy of a carbon copy of a carbon copy of your boilerplate Wilson character: a sweet, go-with-the-flow dipstick who says things like “I don’t take my orders from you. I take them from the universe.” Owen: The universe was telling you not to make this movie.

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