Watching “Father Figures” is like finding a piece of food in the back of your fridge that you barely recognize, but know right away it’s not worth eating. Ostensibly a comedy in which Ed Helms and Owen Wilson try to find the dad they never knew, it unfurls its stale scenarios of familial grievance, R-rated gags and white male anxiety with a breathtaking level of laziness.
The weird thing is, a couple of smart, funny dudes this year have done well mining the neurotic Caucasian dad world for prickly, insightful entertainment: Noah Baumbach with “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” and Mike White with “Brad’s Status.” But “Father Figures,” which marks the directorial debut of “Hangover” cinematographer Lawrence Sher, and was written by Justin Malen (“Office Christmas Party”), exhibits the faint aura of a fill-in-the-blanks Hollywood assignment (for example, “plug up a hole in Owen Wilson’s schedule”), after which someone drew dirty pictures in the margins.
Helms plays Peter, an embittered, divorced father of a teenage boy (Zachary Haven) who hates him, and twin brother to a chill layabout named Kyle (Wilson) whose moneyed life in Hawaii with a sexy young bride (Jessica Gomes) is the exact opposite of Pete’s: charmed and carefree. Reunited at the wedding of their mother Helen (Glenn Close), the brothers learn that their dad wasn’t a husband who died when they were young, but an unknown out of many possible sexual assignations their mother had in the swinging ’70s.
The revelation is enough to send Peter and Kyle on a road trip together to find their father, and because they don’t get along — well, it’s really Pete’s churlish negativity versus Kyle’s untroubled positivity — the movie practically guarantees a certain amount of bickering and infantilized behavior. As Yoda might say to the screen, “The jinks are high with this one.”
In Miami, the pair scope out Terry Bradshaw (playing himself, which he’s good at) as a potential parent, and then must endure highly graphic depictions of their mother’s sexual prowess from the ex-Steeler and a fellow NFL retiree (Ving Rhames) before the brothers’ quest is known to the footballers. (That this requires you to imagine Glenn Close in these pornographic reveries is more like a joke played on a great actress than an actual joke.)
Tipped off that their dad might have been a Wall Street wunderkind who once partied at Studio 54 with their mom, the brothers then head off to find Roland Hunt (an expectedly committed J.K. Simmons), who turns out to be a dragon-tattooed, gun-wielding hermit whose antics nearly get them killed.
Certain scenes are simply headscratchers: a rest area stop that leads to Kyle urinating on a boy, and the picking up of a hitchhiker (Katt Williams, valiantly playing along) that involves tying him up because the brothers think he’s a serial killer. (Um, Peter’s the one with serial killer eyes, no?) On their way to Wooster, Massachusetts, to explore the possibility that their dad was a decorated cop, Peter successfully flirts with a woman at a hotel bar, and when I jotted down, guessing, a certain sexual taboo in my notes, I was right.
A movie that makes Peter a proctologist partly for the rectum humor, that is race-queasy and glibly sexist, isn’t too hard to figure out in other ways. Sher shows no special affinity for comic pacing or enlivening dialogue scenes, either, so the movie just plods from scene to scene, building no momentum.
The autopilot vibe extends to the stars, too. Helms is running on fumes here with his humiliated-dweeb shtick, the movies he’s making a far cry from the sad sack promise he showed in “Cedar Rapids” and “The Office.” Wilson is Wilson — he always at least tries to have chemistry with his buddy vehicles — and it’s safe to wonder if he’ll still be trying to pull off the same beach-kissed, holistic groove when the movies are about retirees pulling off heists. (Grandpa Owen has a free autumn: sign him up!)
At the end, after Christopher Walken and a terribly used Ali Wong share scene time with a cat’s enlarged testicles in a veterinarian’s office, “Father Figures” makes a hard swerve into emotionality for the big reveal about the brothers’ origins. What you’re left with isn’t a warm feeling about mothers and sacrifice; you’ll just wonder why this had to be a big secret in the first place.
Neither committed to forging new comic ground with its wackiness, or savvy enough to make us care about a family journey, “Father Figures” is its own dad stereotype: it’s never there for you.