2017 has been a watershed year for public revelations of abuses within Hollywood, with the flood of horrifying allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein leading to even more women and men in the industry speaking up about sexual harassment, assault, and rape. Disgraced former superstar Mel Gibson has not been mentioned in recent investigations, but while he no longer occupies the same rarified air he did from roughly 1985 until roughly 2005, he has also clearly benefited from the environment that gives allegedly abusive men chance after chance.
After 2010's leaked recordings of phone calls between Gibson and his wife seemed to corroborate allegations of domestic abuse (and, at minimum, confirmed Gibson making foully racist and misogynistic remarks), he laid low for awhile. But he was still given the opportunity to play self-consciously "crazy" bad guys in self-aware pulp like The Expendables 3 and Machete Kills, and by early 2017 he was receiving another Oscar nomination for directing Hacksaw Ridge (in which he did not appear). Audiences may not be especially interested in looking at Mel Gibson, and plenty of filmmakers may be reluctant to engage with him, but Hollywood has found some workarounds.
Gibson's latest appearance barely counts as a workaround at all. He's a full co-star — receiving the special "and" credit — in Daddy's Home 2, a family-themed Christmas comedy. It's Gibson's highest-profile role in years, casting him as a frequently absent father to Mark Wahlberg. In the first film, Sara (Linda Cardellini) and Brad (Will Ferrell) had to deal with the return of Sara's ex-husband Dusty (Wahlberg), the neglectful father of Sara's two kids. By the end, a reformed Dusty was married to a new spouse and became a stepdad himself, while Brad and Sara had a new baby of their own. In the sequel, a "Together Christmas" for two blended, overlapping families is disrupted by Dusty's father Kurt (Gibson) and Brad's father Don (John Lithgow).
Both older characters are meant to mimic their on-screen sons: Kurt is an emotionally closed-off man's man, while Don is chatty, sensitive, and hands-on. The casting of Gibson is crucial, and not in a good way. Kurt, unimpressed by the newly cooperative and sensitive Dusty, teases out conflict between the two now-friendly stepdads. He wants Dusty to defend his turf, not defer to Brad's perfect-dad fussiness. It's a major role, though in Gibson's playing of it, not a particularly memorable one.
Part of this falls to the movie's writing. Like Dusty in the first Daddy's Home, Kurt's characterization is supposed to be a familiar type, but it borders on nonsensical. He's supposed to be a celebrated astronaut, but he doesn't seem especially smart, and the movie doesn't find a funny way to reconcile his low-rent womanizing with his pseudo-GQ veneer. Gibson is into his 60s at this point, and though he doesn't exactly have the eternally youthful visage of, say, Tom Cruise, the movie often treats him like he does — it's more than a little coddling of Gibson's ego (the movie even makes his generally skeptical character vaguely reverent of religion, as if nodding to Gibson's Catholicism). Daddy's Home 2 affectionately goofs on Dusty and Brad, but it isn't written to poke much fun at Kurt's smug self-image — a missed opportunity, given Ferrell's skill at spoofing unearned male bravado. Instead, Ferrell's reactions to Gibson — Kurt looks like he was "carved from Gibraltar," Brad enthuses on first sight — are funnier than anything Gibson actually does in the movie.
Gibson must share the blame, and not just for the visceral unpleasantness some viewers will doubtless feel watching an accused abuser with regressive views of the world half-celebrated as an "old school" man of action. Beyond his reputation, his performance itself is mostly flat and sour — Kurt's cracks and eyerolls at the expense of co-parenting aren't well-written, but Gibson sure as hell doesn't sell them. He's restrained, but it's not a deadpan restraint. It's the kind of performance that assumes a lot of audience goodwill. This stunning miscalculation results in nearly every member of the cast — Ferrell, Wahlberg, Lithgow, the charming but perpetually ill-served Cardellini, the too-cute kids, a bit-playing John Cena, and a voice cameo from a prominently aged action star — landing more and bigger laughs than he does.
It may be that Gibson, beyond his personal issues, isn't necessarily built for broad comedy — even though, paradoxically, he does a lot of broad, zany shtick in his big movies. But why on Earth, then, did anyone involved with this movie want to work with him?
Daddy's Home 2 might be amusing at times, but not funny enough to erase the lingering questions it raises. For example: How did Ferrell or McKay (a credited producer) not flag a scene where Gibson's Kurt teaches a kid that he should, essentially, sexually harass a girl he likes? It's meant satirically, of course, but the scene doesn't work that way; it never chases away anxieties about appropriate behavior with a big, cathartic laugh. Like the rest of Gibson's performance, it just sits there on screen, looking surly, making the now-mystifying assumption that the audience is primed to forgive and forget.
Some may chalk this dissonance up to bad timing. It's something more like bad faith.