Director : Adam McKay
Screenplay : Will Ferrell & Adam McKay (story by Will Ferrel & Adam McKay & John C. Reilly)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Will Ferrell (Brennan Huff), John C. Reilly (Dale Doback), Richard Jenkins (Robert Doback), Mary Steenburgen (Nancy Huff), Adam Scott (Derek Huff), Kathryn Hahn (Alice Huff), Rob Riggle (Randy), Horatio Sanz (Lead Singer)
The funniest thing about Step Brothers, the new comedy from the same team that produced Anchorman (2004) and Talladega Nights (2006), isn’t in the movie itself, but rather its advertising one-sheet, which is a perfect parody of those ridiculous glamour shots people get at shopping mall portrait studios. In matching argyle sweater vests, with their hair gently teased and their faces buffed smooth by either make-up or Photoshop (or both), stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, who play the feuding, then best-buddy, then feuding again step-siblings of the title, smile vacantly in a perfectly ridiculous, utterly unnatural pose, their eyes focused just above the camera where you can imagine a very cheesy and very bored photographer guiding their focus. The joke, of course, is that such portraits are designed to make the subjects look good, but rather have the opposite effect of making everyone who poses for them look ridiculous. They’re the great leveler; no matter how beautiful or ugly you may be, a mall glamour shot will make you look generically bad.
Unfortunately, there is nothing so immediately funny in the movie, which is a crass, loud, and generally mean-spirited comedy that feels like it was hatched over a late-night get-together with only minor polishing once the hangovers had worn off the next morning. The idea is that Ferrell and Reilly are 40-year-old losers who have never sought or maintained gainful employment (or emotionally matured past the age of 10) and have instead settled into a comfortably bland life of mooching off their increasingly exasperated parents. Ferrell’s Brennan Huff is another of the comic actor’s long litany of man-children caught in a perpetual state of arrested development, the only difference being that his language is much coarser and his actions less amusing. Reilly’s Dale Doback lives in a similarly perpetual state of immaturity, but somehow his focused affections for Star Wars, drum kits, and time-warp pornography (nothing past the 1990s) gives him a stronger and more memorable presence. Their parents (Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins, respectively) are pushed beyond all responsible bounds, albeit with distinctly different responses: Steenburgen sinks into a deep crevice of enablement while Jenkins gets more and more perturbed, with the results becoming less and less funny (it is particularly depressing seeing Jenkins striving so hard and missing so badly given his beautifully sad performance in The Visitor).
Director Adam McKay, who cowrote the script with Ferrell, turns the film over to his two stars, who were clearly made for each other. With their matching white man ’fros and generally goofy demeanors, Ferrell and Reilly are motion picture soulmates who found each other from opposite ends of the movie spectrum (Ferrell working his way up from Saturday Night Live, while Reilly honed his chops in the world of indie and art films by P.T. Anderson, Lasse Hallström, and Terence Malick). They have a palpable screen chemistry, whether it be staring each other down at dinner or fighting it out on the front lawn, but too much of the film’s humor feels forced and clumsy. When Ferrell pulls out a prosthetic scrotum to rub all over Reilly’s cherished drum set, the movie has pretty much hit its rock bottom, as it does just about every time a character utters an F-bomb, which is done so with an awkward, self-conscious, “we’re going for an R rating” pretense. There is also a general sloppiness to the screenplay, which introduces elements that have no real pay-off (for example, a blind neighbor with a disobedient dog whose culminating gag must have been left somewhere on the cutting room floor).
When the movie does work, it is when it is at its most surreal. As Derek, Ferrell’s overachieving lout of a younger brother, Adam Scott makes for a truly worthy nemesis, with his control-freak persona being firmly established in a scene in which he and his miserable wife (Kathryn Hahn) and his two picture-perfect children run through an a cappella version of Guns’n’Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” in their squeaky clean Range Rover (although Derek’s most repulsive characteristic is surely his loathsome tendency to unnecessarily abbreviate ordinary words, like turning “neighborhood” into “nabe”). Similarly, a sequence that finds Ferrell and Reilly faced with a schoolyard full of juvenile bullies, as well as Ferrell’s heartfelt rendition of “Let’s Give ‘em Something to Talk About,” which causes Reilly to gush that his voice is like a mix between Fergie and Jesus, have a blissful absurdity that the rest of the movie, for all its strained effort, studiously lacks.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Columbia Pictures