I am astounded how not great Step Brothers is.
Adam McKay is the perfect conduit for Will Ferrell’s manic brilliance, whether as a co-writer or as a savvy comedic director who knows how to let his star run wild but with a finger on the kill switch in case things reach critical mass or run the risk of overstaying their welcome. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is a thing of beauty and a worthy enough absurdist comedy to be mentioned alongside the likes of Airplane! and The Naked Gun and Talladega Nights was a very good broad comedy. Ferrell and McKay are as reliable a duo as comedy has right now and with the amazing John C. Reilly in tow as co-star and co-writer Step Brothers seemed like instant glory for the gang.
It’s certainly not terrible but it’s one of the most disjointed major comedies in recent memory, adopting a ‘kitchen sink’ approach and allowing its stars to run rampant with the high concept, a tactic which yields mixed results.
Deadbeat sons around the age of forty, Ferrell and Reilly are Brendan Huff and Dale Doback whose parents (Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen) marry and force to two to either grow up or lose their shit altogether. Before lapsing into the lame comedy staple of feeling compelled to have an actual story arc, the bulk of the fun of Step Brothers is watching the two grown-up men go wild on each other.
Ferrell surprisingly plays the more gentle of the two, sometimes showcasing a vulnerability and withdrawn side of his persona when combating his new relative, and some of the better moments involve the borderline creepy vibe the actor pulls off so well. In between the louder moments from the trailers (which give away most of the best stuff) there are some truly weird moments in the film that hint at where Ferrell’s creative efforts may take him down the line [I think the man has some Andy Kaufman in his bloodstream just waiting to come out]. While Dale is more of a troglodyte, the combination of Brendan living with his mother and having spent his life abused by his younger brother (Adam Scott, channeling Tom Cruise) allows the actor to go to some weirder places and channel the child-like wonder that he’s so effective with. Dale is more bombastic and rough around the edges, more suitable to John C. Reilly’s skills. It feels almost like a different shade of his Chest Rockwell character from Boogie Nights, something that doesn’t come off as well as it could have. Reilly is best used as a sneaky weapon and as a foil but as a co-lead in a comedy like some of his best skills go unused. It becomes a case where the film segues from fun moments to ones which ring hollow. For every moment where listening to the two leads spout bizarre and vulgar observations that delivers laughs there’s one that just seems forced or better in concept than execution. Sometimes it’s fun to see talented comedians throw shit at a wall and see what sticks but here it just makes the missed opportunities stick out.
The efforts to cater to the widest audience hurts the film in the slapstick moments or a surprisingly Farrelly-esque gag involving exposed testicles. It seems out of place in a film like this by creators who are more content to spout obscure pop culture references than show someone get hit with a hard object. These creators are good enough to keep Step Brothers entertaining but it still comes off awfully scattershot.
Luckily, Richard Jenkins is in the film. Always one of the best character actors available, Jenkins has a few moments here that truly showcase the man’s skill for comedy. He and Steenburgen are given the unenviable task of playing straight to the nutty lead duo but as the film progresses Jenkins’ character becomes more and more impatient and the actor sells it in spades. There are a few small moments involving Jenkins that are actually funnier than most of the money moments.
This seems like a rush job or a film that was unmade in the editing room. No one sees a film like this for a plot or story arcs and I never understand why absurdist comedies feel the need to get serious for a while in Act Three. Typically it sets the film off path and this is no exception. Thankfully there are some nice moments in the later moments of the film to send the audience off on a good foot, but at the end of the day Step Brothers is the least successful Adam McKay/Will Ferrell vehicle.
That said, any film with a centaur can’t be all bad.
The Pros: Richard Jenkins. Adam Scott. The quieter moments. The truly absurd moments. Sleepwalking scenes are either brilliant and hilarious or hilariously weird, either way successful. Great use of a Chewbacca mask. A Spacehunter poster on the wall adds class. Ferrell and Reilly are a great pair, especially when being deliciously vulgar.
The Cons: Subplot involving bully kids is terrible and familiar. There’s no need for these guys to have a gag involving someone’s testicles being exposed being a punchline. Yacht subplot unsuccessful. Romantic subplots are forced and wholly unnesseccary. Disjointed. “Going straight” moments seem forced and stunt the effect of the jokes. Seems almost like a formality edit as a precursor to the inevitable unrated DVD release. Bizarre family sing-a-along sequence. When it gets loud and crazy it loses its way.