Movie Review: Step Brothers
By Matthew Huntley
August 4, 2008
Two years ago, actors Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, director Adam McKay and producer Judd Apatow made a funny and satirical comedy called Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, about an idiotic and pompous race car driver who eventually learns a lesson about sportsmanship and tolerance. It was edgy, affectionate and had a definite agenda while maintaining an appreciable amount of humor.
Step Brothers, the foursome's latest collaboration, lacks those qualities, although its two main characters are every bit as idiotic as Ricky Bobby, only not as likable. Ferrell and Reilly play Brennan and Dale, a pair of 40-year-olds still living with their single parents. Brennan lives with his mom, Nancy (Mary Steenburgen), who leaves for a medical conference. Dale's dad is Robert (Richard Jenkins), who's speaking at the conference.
As Robert delivers his speech, his eyes lock with Nancy's and they immediately fall in love (it helps they both have sons in arrested development). They're married in the very next scene, which sets up the movie's premise: Brennan and Dale are forced to live together and share a room. The two start out hating each other and resort to things like wrestling in the front yard. Then, after Dale punches out Brennan's arrogant older brother, Derek (Adam Scott), they become best friends and decide to start their own entertainment company. During this time we get the usual brand of Ferrell-Reilly humor - screaming, singing, destroying furniture, and male nudity.
That's more or less the long and short of Step Brothers, an awkward and mostly laugh-free comedy that's only made tolerable because of the convincing performances of its two leads. But even with Ferrell and Reilly at the head, it's more or less a series of flat gags and uncomfortable moments that are more stupid and bizarre than they are amusing.
For instance, I didn't find it all that funny or interesting to watch Brennan and Dale sleepwalk and destroy the kitchen. The two are so obnoxious in this scene that I couldn't help but agree with Robert - both these guys need to be spanked. It was also a strange development for Derek's wife, Alice (Kathryn Hahn), to suddenly fall in love with Dale. The two have impromptu sex in the men's bathroom, after which she urinates standing up. Why is this funny? Is it because it's weird? If McKay had simply shown Dale's puzzling reaction to her behavior, and not drawn so much attention to the act, it might have worked.
With Talladega Nights, Ferrell, Reilly, McKay and Apatow were clearly onto something, and they knew it, which is probably why they figured all they had to do for this movie was reunite. It wasn't. Step Brothers feels recycled and slapped together. And I don't know about you, but I'm growing tired of male frontal nudity in Judd Apatow pictures. Apatow and his usual entourage of actors/directors seem to get off on showing genitalia. It's probably on their checklist before the movie even goes into production.
In one scene, Brennan yanks out his scrotum (although it could have been a prosthetic) and rubs it on Dale's drum set. At this point in Apatow's career, which has exploded in as little as three years, it seems like we're seeing genitalia just to see it. The same goes for John C. Reilly walking around in colored briefs, which we also saw in Walk Hard, a movie written and produced by Apatow. What is this guy's fascination with scantily dressed and/or nude men? Perhaps he wants to break the taboo and loosen everybody up on male nudity, and that's a good thing, but I think he's accomplished that. It's time for him to move on.
One thing I liked about the movie was the way Ferrell and Reilly played Brennan and Dale. They didn't merely imitate grown men acting like brats, but really kind of became them. I'm sure there's people out there like Brennan and Dale who always get a free ride from their parents and simply don't know how to grow up, who are sometimes made fun of by kids even younger than them. Ferrell and Reilly convinced me they were those guys. Their clothes (Return of the Jedi t-shirts), toys (Hulk fists) and behavior (wanting to build bunk beds) seemed like genuine extensions of their characters' natures and not just gags. I liked how both guys end up in therapy. If the movie concentrated more on this path, it might have actually been about something.
But Step Brothers mostly drifts around for 93 minutes. Some of the comedy - like the blind neighbor, the co-worker who yells "pow," Ferrell wiping his butt with a bathroom rug - are just strange and ineffectual, which makes me think the studio saw this entire production merely as a way to cash in on the success of Talladega Nights. The next time Ferrell, Reilly, McKay and Apatow team up (and you know they will), let's hope they have a better screenplay and a more focused concept to work with.