Father Figures

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?It doesn’t speak highly of a comedy when one of its lead actors declining to do much actual comic shtick counts as a respite. Father Figures may be largely unfunny, in that few of its jokes work and they are given a vast, 113-minute expanse in which to not work, but at least Ed Helms isn’t playing another aggressively striving, eager-to-please passive-aggressive dork. Peter (Helms) is more of a downbeat, unsatisfied, garden-variety dork, with an unimpressed young son and an overall ennui he unconvincingly chalks up to not knowing his own father.Moviegoers may recall the basic premise of “Father Figures” from “Flirting With Disaster,” a vastly funnier 1996 comedy by David O. Russell. “Father Figures” doesn’t merely flirt. It stars Ed Helms as Peter and Owen Wilson as Kyle, two of the least-related-seeming twins in history. On the day their mother (Glenn Close) marries some cool cat played by Harry Shearer, they learn that their father isn’t dead, as they thought, but just unknown. Mom didn’t practice monogamy in the disco era.

And so the brothers venture out to meet their father. The contenders include Terry Bradshaw (playing himself), who seems thrilled to have Peter to toss around a football with but pays no attention to Kyle, and Roland (J.K. Simmons), who would just as soon betray or shoot his sons as bond with them. Kyle and Peter also pick up a hitchhiker (Katt Williams) who becomes a mediator for their bickering.

Distinguished mainly by its overqualified cast and lack of inspiration, “Father Figures” can’t decide whether it’s a gross-out comedy or an uplifting tale of brotherly love; it embraces the worst of both worlds. When not lobbing jokes about prostates, possible incest and mammoth cat testicles, the movie stops cold for Mr. Helms and Mr. Wilson (who can act, on the basis of other movies) to muddle through one heart-to-heart after another. “Father Figures” purports to run about two hours, but it feels like the length of Kyle and Peter’s upbringing.ather Figures” is a movie, ostensibly. I’m pretty sure it is. Moving images were projected, along with recorded sound, which indicates it is a movie, but the effect was so listless, low-energy and profoundly unentertaining that I jotted down in my notes “what even IS this?” It would be more accurate to describe the experience as a nearly two-hour borderline hostage situation, with torture involving bad, offensive and unfunny “comedy.”

The protagonists are brothers Peter (Ed Helms) and Kyle (Owen Wilson), who are “twins.” Sure. Peter is a divorced doctor, with a kid who hates him, and a personal life that consists predominantly of “Law & Order: SVU” reruns. He’s deeply envious of Kyle, a beach bum who’s made millions licensing his likeness to a barbecue sauce company.

At the wedding of their mother, Helen (Glenn Close), Peter, desperately unhappy with the banality of his cushy upper-middle class life, self-soothes with an episode of “SVU,” when he becomes convinced one of the actors is their long-lost father. He’s not, but it sets the brothers on a cross-country road trip.

First, they head to Miami to find football star Terry Bradshaw, the name Helen initially throws out. But it soon becomes a wild goose chase up the Eastern seaboard dubbed “Operation Who’s Your Daddy,” as the bros dig up Helen’s exes from the last days of disco.

Cinematographer Lawrence Sher makes his directorial debut with the film, which is about as captivating as a flaccid noodle. Awkward bits of brotherly rivalry or ribaldry go on for far, far, painfully too long, and all of the energy is strangely subdued and muted. All momentum is sapped from the film, which requires extreme amounts of patience to endure.

But, the true offense comes from the blinkered and completely tone deaf script by Justin Malen. That it’s not funny and makes no sense would be bad enough, but there’s a virulent strain of sexism, too. Every woman the brothers encounter is evaluated for their sexual potential, not anything else. Their own mother, played the legendary Close, is reduced to a running joke that involves the exes repeatedly describing her sexual skills of their mother.