Wearing a paternal grimace throughout the grimly mechanical Daddy’s Home, Will Ferrell plays Brad, a man on a mission to win his stepchildren’s love. And he seems well on his way to doing so. His stepson is asking him for tips on how to deal with bullies, and his stepdaughter, who initially drew pictures of the family featuring Brad being killed in a variety of rococo ways, has finally invited him to the daddy-daughter dance. Brad’s job as a program director at a smooth-jazz radio station affords him a corner office the size of a basketball court, his wife, Sarah (Linda Cardellini), has made her peace with the fact that Brad’s accidentally irradiated balls won’t give her a third child, and life is good. Until the kids’ biological father, Dusty (Mark Wahlberg), shows up and effectively moves in to reclaim his territory.
Everything Dusty is, Brad isn’t. Dusty is rugged, impetuous, confident, and can do one-armed pull-ups without breaking a sweat. Validation-thirsty Brad cries with little warning, runs from conflict, and smothers his family with affection instead of depriving them, as Dusty has done in the past. The funhouse mirrors having been methodically placed against one another, Daddy’s Home proceeds to episodically debase Brad one psychologically crippling incident after another: motorcycle crashes, electrocutions, public nudity.
The hits from Dusty’s corner come so frequently and tactically that it almost seems he’s less interested in landing a second chance with his former family and more invested in teaching Brad how to man up. Though Ferrell has made a career out of his own debasement, the film quickly becomes too cruel to generate laughter for anyone who would empathize with him, though Daddy’s Home offers a new spin on his “tantrum-prone boy in man’s body” prototype. Here, he’s the man trying to hide the scared little boy inside.
If the film had bothered to make Sarah a character, it might have registered that no person who was ever attracted to one of these two men would ever be attracted to the other one. Not even acute daddy issues would explain how Sarah could turn from loving an emotionally avoidant James Dean-on-steroids to loving a hypersensitive, docile-servile doormat. An M. Night Shyamalan-ian twist wherein it was revealed Sarah never existed at all, but was only a figment of Brad and Dusty’s collective subconscious to help them cope with their thinly sublimated homoerotic tension, would make more sense than the scenario Daddy’s Home asks its audience to accept.