Owen Wilson and Ed Helms play brothers looking for the father they never knew in Lawrence Sher’s comedy, with Glenn Close as their evasive mother.
Why do movies and sitcoms keep giving us stories about children who don’t know who got their mothers pregnant? Do these crises represent a cultural fear of uncontrolled female sexuality? A lament for fathers who, even if physically present, never showed up emotionally? Or do they subconsciously express a nation’s confused feelings about its own founders, with those who are most eager to “return to our roots” having the shakiest understanding of the ideals from which America emerged?
Whatever the answer, the latest entry in this overworked genre is Lawrence Sher’s Father Figures, a textbook example of hackwork both behind and in front of the camera. Playing variations of characters they’ve played many times before, Owen Wilson and Ed Helms are brothers hoping to find the daddy they never knew. Largely but not entirely inoffensive, the Warners Bros. release may enjoy a short success among moviegoers who’ve been informed of the bounty of good films currently in cinemas but who resent being told what to see. (To be fair, few if any of those year-end treasures are unchallenging comedies.)
Helms and Wilson play respective brothers Peter, a divorced proctologist whose son thinks he’s an “asshole,” and Kyle, a beach bum who became rich when somebody put his likeness on a bottle of BBQ sauce. Since they were children, their mother Helen (Glenn Close) has told them their father died of colon cancer before they were born. When an unlikely coincidence forces her to come clean, she admits this was a lie: Helen simply got around a lot in the ’70s, and none of the guys who might have knocked her up were people she thought of as good-dad material.
Uptight Peter is incensed at this; Kyle takes ‘er easy. (Are we still straight on which actor plays which brother?) But both are thrilled when Helen says quarterback hero Terry Bradshaw sired them, and together, they rush off to bond with the NFL star.
Sharp moviegoers who’ve seen the jumble of older men on the film’s poster will realize that Bradshaw does not, in fact, prove to be the sperminator in question. The brothers have just enough time to get comfortable in his presence (and to hear the first of several rhapsodies about how great Helen was in bed) before learning that the timing is off. Terry isn’t the man, but he thinks he knows who is.
Kyle and Peter rack up frequent flyer miles as they trek from man to man, having dramatic “We’re your sons!” encounters before learning they’ve got the wrong senior citizen. (The candidates include Ving Rhames, J.K. Simmons and Christopher Walken.)
Each time, Justin Malen’s script offers a nugget of novelty that might have led to something amusing, but Sher (a cinematographer making his directing debut) and his cast can’t bring them to life. As the narrative limps along from one encounter to the next, a suspicion grows: Father Figures doesn’t need to exist; but if it’s going to exist, perhaps some sharper comedic talents could have developed it as a limited-run Netflix show, with each encounter developed as a half-hour episode.
Things do pick up some in the second half, but in a very mixed-bag sort of way. Katt Williams is refreshing as a hitchhiker, however oddly the film treats him. The reliably sharp Katie Aselton appears, but her character might as well be wearing a T-shirt reading “character-redemption one-night-stand”: In a sad kind of man-centric wish-fulfillment, this woman drinking alone at a bar refuses to discuss any of her own problems, encourages our hero to talk about his and vanishes quietly in the morning after a night of confidence-boosting sex. There’s a bit more to this story in ensuing scenes, but come on.
Without giving anything away, it must be said that the mystery’s ultimate resolution makes the story preceding it feel like a cruel prank. And that a viewer would have to be quite a soft touch to respond to the pic’s attempts to generate fuzzy family-bonding vibes. Our two fatherless heroes will discover their own capacity to be good dads, as is required by such films. That’s rarely the way things work in real life, of course. But if it means we can go without paternity-puzzle movies for a while, who’s complaining?
Production company: Montecito Picture
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Ed Helms, Owen Wilson, Glenn Close, Katt Williams, Katie Aselton, Terry Bradshaw, Ving Rhames, J.K. Simmons, Jack Mcgee, Christopher Walken, Ali Wong, Retta
Director: Lawrence Sher
Screenwriter: Justin Malen
Producers: Ali Bell, Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosove, Ivan Reitman
Executive producers: Timothy M. Bourne, Chris Cowles, Chris Fenton, Scott Parish, Tom Pollock
Director of photography: John Lindley
Production designer: Stephen H. Carter
Music: Rob Simonsen
Editor: Dana E. Glauberman
Casting: Chris Gray, John Papsidera
Rated R, 112 minutes