What Daddy’s Home 2 tells us about career-ruining Hollywood scandals

In Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson, the festive romp offers two case studies with different outcomes.

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Understandably low on the list of questions to have arisen from the current sexual abuse allegations in the film industry is the matter of whether an actor’s career can ever survive such besmirchment. Audiences are not juries; they can’t be expected to forget everything they have read on their way to the cinema. And actors know that it pays to stay off the front page. “When you’re uncovered, you can no longer move quite as stealthily, you can no longer dodge the radar,” said Kevin Spacey when I interviewed him 20 years ago. “I like to stay in the shadows.” If the accusations against him are true, there may have been some confusion in his mind about whether those shadows made him a better actor or a more effective predator. Or both.

One might not turn ordinarily to an undistinguished festive romp for a prognosis. Except that Daddy’s Home 2, a sequel to the 2015 hit about a macho father who goes to war with his children’s effete step-dad, offers two case studies with different outcomes. Mark Wahlberg, the film’s star, was charged at the age of 16 with attempted murder for a racially-aggravated attack; he pleaded guilty to assault and served prison time. Crime and punishment predate his acting career and it would be churlish to insist there were still some debt outstanding, some biographical blot on his affable screen persona. No effort is needed to accept him as Dusty, who has now reached a rapprochement with sweet-but-dippy Brad (Will Ferrell), which makes them more like spouses than co-dads.

The presence of Mel Gibson is more problematic. He plays Kurt, Dusty’s boozy, unreconstructed father, for whom “ho, ho, ho” would likely imply something other than festive cheer. Kurt treats the whole family, including Brad’s teddy bear of a dad (John Lithgow) and assorted interchangeable women and moppets, to Christmas in a luxurious ski lodge. But an actor whose misogynistic, anti-semitic, racist and homophobic outbursts are a matter of recent public record, and who pleaded “no contest” in 2011 to the battery of a former partner, is bound to cast a shadow longer than his charge sheet. The lighthearted mood couldn’t be in greater jeopardy if the film were set in a children’s hospice.

In Gibson’s first scene, he leers at two young female flight attendants who are seduced by his silver mohair bouffant, his skin like ten miles of dirt road, and his Sid James phwoar face. Kurt favours off-colour gags (“Two dead hookers wash up on the shore…”) and proposes sexual harassment as a courtship technique for his grandson: “Slap your spaghetti-suckers right on her, then give her a nice smack on the caboose.” He berates the boy for using the “sissy-rail” during bowling, which might be excusable if his homophobia were discredited by the film. (It isn’t.) Gibson could scarcely hope to play a character more like himself if he landed the lead in The Mel Gibson Story.

How much cannier if he and Lithgow had swapped roles and played against type. Gibson has been at his strongest when vulnerable, such as in the thriller Conspiracy Theory or in his first post-scandal film, The Beaver, both of which cast him as men with mental health issues. It would have lightened the mood here to see him wearing silly jumpers, recommending “the friend zone” as an alternative to rampant womanising or joining Brad in his enthusiasm for gender-neutral flashcards.

Even without this actor at his most toxic, the film would be no closer to a seasonal delight in the tradition of The Shop Around the Corner or Elf. Characters fight over the thermostat but happily teach a pre-teen to shoot a rifle. (The movie is like an early Christmas present to the NRA.) Those who make it to the last five minutes will be rewarded with some jokes concerning a festive Liam Neeson action movie called Missile Tow (sample line: “Santa’s got a present for you bastards!”). It’s telling, though, that redemption and closure arrive in a climactic sequence in a multiplex foyer. The film-makers seem genuinely to believe that cinema can wash away your sins. In this context, at least, Gibson’s are too stubborn to shift. 

Ryan Gilbey joins Kate Mossman and Tom Gatti in The Back Half culture podcast to discuss Mel Gibson's rehabilitation and what makes a classic Christmas movie. Plus: Bjork's Utopia reviewed. Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder