When I saw Will Farrell on Jon Stewart, promoting his new film, Casa de mi Padre, I knew I had to see it. The clip they showed wasn’t so much hilarious as deeply weird, and I’m all about deeply weird. Will Farrell in a homage/spoof of telenovellas, in a role in which he speaks entirely Spanish. A language, by the way, which Will Farrell does not speak. It looked like the kind of odd-ball vanity project maybe ten people would see, but it also looked so strange, how could I resist? So last night my wife and I, thanks to our Netflix fairy godmothers, watched it.
What can I say? It was one of those movies that we both liked, but it was one of those where I kept laughing out loud and she’d say ‘what? I don’t get it.’ And then I’d rerun it, and she’d laugh and I’d laugh more the second time. A lot of the jokes were in the backgrounds of shots, a lot of them involved continuity errors (turns out, my wife’s better at spotting those than I am). Plus it had Will Farrell, speaking Spanish.
The homage/spoof is a genre I’ve grown to love, especially the ones remaking a kind of movie nobody makes for real anymore, the grindhouse/drive-in movie movie. When I was in high school, me and my friends would crowd into my car and head over to the Starlite drive-in on a Friday night and we’d watch these terrible old American International/Roger Corman films. Bad sci-fi, bad car chase movies, blaxploitation films (unaccountably popular in white-bread Indiana), and occasionally, bad Westerns. For my birthday a few years ago, a good friend gave me DVD’s of a double-feature he and I remembered fondly, a particularly awful drive-in double date double feature. Hitchhike to Hell, and Kidnapped Coed. My son and I watched the DVD together, and my son, who I like to think we raised proper (a movie buff, in other words), was entranced. He couldn’t believe someone seriously made movies that bad, or that there was a market for them. When drive-ins went under, though, an entire B-movie industry went under with them.
And B movies were amazing, really, which is not the same thing as saying they were good. They had tremendous drive and energy. Every shot was in one take (they typically had, like, a week to shoot them), and the actors did their own, very dangerous, stunts. When I was in MIA (the forerunner to Young Men’s/Young Women’s), our leaders always warned us against movies with, as they put it, gratuitous nudity and violence. We’d nod our heads solemnly, knowing we were off that Friday to see drive-in movies that were basically nothing but gratuitous nudity and violence. Hey, I was sixteen. But that’s a lot of the voyeuristic pleasure of movies. And, as I said, I still appreciate the pace and power of those films, their urgency, and of course, the music.
And nowadays, out of affection, big-deal studios are tackling them. Black Dynamite (2009) parodied blaxploitation cop movies. Robert Rodriguez, Eli Roth and Quintin Tarantino made Grindhouse (2007), which was subsequently re-released as two movies, Planet Terror (spoofing zombie movies), and Death Proof (spoofing car chase movies). Loved ’em both, probably more because I’m so fond of the movies they’re making fun of/honoring. (‘Cause it really is both. You’re mocking the conventions of these things, but you’re also trying to make a really good one.)
So now, Will Farrell is doing novellas. And it’s brilliant. Of course, Farrell doesn’t actually speak Spanish, which means he has to speak it rather slowly, which means the subtitles can keep up, but it also makes his character seem slow-witted, which is fine because he is. Farrell is Armando Alvarez, a simple cowhand, but also son of the wealthy Don Miquel (Pedro Almendariz). Armando’s brother, Raul (Diego Luna), is smarter, richer and a drug dealer; he’s come home to introduce his new bride, Sonia (the impossibly beautiful Genesis Rodriquez, who turns out to be a pretty nifty comedienne). But Raul is in a turf war with the vicious drug lord Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal), who it turns out is Sonia’s uncle. (That’s pretty funny too; he looks younger than she is). Bernal’s an international movie star, of course, and he’s clearly having a ball here, vamping it up as a slime-ball. Meanwhile Armando falls in love with Sonia, although really he’s so dim he doesn’t seem entirely sure what to do about it. (He does, quite memorably, figure it out.) He also hangs out with his two best friends, Esteban (Efren Ramirez: Pedro from Napolean Dynamite) and Manuel (Adrian Martinez).
There are songs, of course. Including “no lo se“, a song Farrell sings with his two buds, about how he doesn’t know anything. (“Why does the moon shine at night? No lo se!”). Funniest song in the movie, except perhaps for a song in which the lyrics are, in their entirety, “la la la.” There’s also a bloodbath scene at the end, all slow motion shots of people getting shot, which somehow looked just fake enough to be funny. (Diego Luna, who spends the entire movie with a drink in his hand, takes a sip as he falls, gunned down).
There’s also a white jaguar, played by a puppet so fake it was practically a muppet. It dispenses spiritual wisdom, and heals Farrell when Bernal shoots him. There also appears to be a sequence in which the white cat defeats several coyotes, which we don’t see–instead, an apology statement appears on-screen for the gratuitous violence of the scene.
It’s not falling-down-in-laughter funny. But somehow I laughed more than if it had been overtly funnier. The director, Matt Piedmont, is an old writer friend of Farrell’s from his Saturday Night Live days; he knows how to set up a gag and make it pay off.
At his best, Farrell is the funniest man alive. Of course, his movies are uneven–they all have funny moments, but they don’t always hold together. This movie looks at novellas with affection and good cheer. I don’t know how many people will see it, but it certainly tickled my funny bone.