Step Brothers is yet another entry into the canon of movies that have resulted from the collaboration between director Adam McKay, star Will Ferrell, and (. . . wait for it) producer Judd Apatow. After mining all kinds of scenarios for comedy (anchormen, race car drivers, the '70s in general, etc.), even these funny guys have to hit the bottom of the barrel sometime. I imagine the concept that would result from that rock-bottom brainstorming session would go something like this: "How about instead of making a movie about a guy who has a grownup job but sometimes acts like a childish loser, we literally just make a movie about a childish loser?" In other words, it would look a lot like Step Brothers.
And so it goes, with Ferrell of course taking the overgrown-child role. Add to the mix a crew of esteemed supporting actors including Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins, and you end up with a familiar comedy that explores some unfamiliar territory (Ferrell's private parts — I'm not even joking). The movie had me buckled over in my seat laughing about half the time, but I spent the rest of it horrified and a little bored with how standard it all felt. To see what I loved and what I'm tired of,
Stripped of all the bravado that his moronic characters usually boast, Ferrell's Brennan Huff is actually humble, painfully aware that he is the world's biggest loser (he still lives at home with his mom even though he's 40-something years old). His mom (Steenburgen) speculates that things went wrong for her son after some public humiliation by other kids, led by Brennan's older brother Derek (the pitch-perfect Adam Scott). Then a middle-aged fellow in a similar boat, Dale Doback (John C. Reilly), is forced to move in with Brennan when their parents get married. The two immediately resent each other — and by "resent," I mean Dale tells Brennan how much he hates him, and then they quite literally go at each other's throats.
For the most part, the shtick works, and the two stars have great chemistry together. And when Ferrell whips himself into an angry, manic, f-bomb-laden frenzy full of sex jokes and scatological humor, it's occasionally worth a chuckle. Mostly, though, the act feels tired: The novelty of Ferrell flying off the hook like that has worn off for me by now. It's a little different when Reilly does it; we're not as used to seeing him channel immaturity and comic rage. But even then, the infantile tantrums that resort to third-grade jokes get old fast.
But, when the movie is actually working and thinking at how to make us laugh (rather than resorting to the tried-and-true stuff), it's really, really good. The fellas stay true to their characters, and in a lot of moments the natural humor inherent in their situation comes through. For example, Brennan is believed to be a great singer but is hesitant to perform for anyone. When he finally does sing for his new brother, Dale is so moved that he describes the gorgeousness of Brennan's voice as "a combination between Fergie and Jesus." Later, when we're introduced to the d-bag that is Brennan's tormenting brother Derek, he's driving his family along in a car, demanding they sing a song together and that everyone's harmonies are in key and timed perfectly. It's one of my favorite scenes in the movie.
Ferrell is a talented guy. He's especially great when he puts a little effort into making us laugh and saves the angry meltdowns and the exposing of body parts for when it really counts. Thankfully Step Brothers has more going on than just its star's juvenile proclivities.
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures