Step Brothers (2008)
“Step Brothers,” which was produced by Judd Apatow and his and Will Ferrell’s manager, Jimmy Miller, is nowhere near as good, funny or polished as “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” the Nascar spoof directed by Adam McKay, which was also produced by Mr. Apatow and Mr. Miller. In that movie, Mr. Ferrell and John C. Reilly play best, not terribly bright, friends. Here, again directed by Mr. McKay, they play not terribly bright slackers turned brothers turned friends, who, after their parents wed, generate a lot of noisy, fitfully amusing, ultimately tiresome havoc. They’re losers that only a mother, an entertainment manager or a gang of self-satisfied comedy insiders could love.
The idea of two men of around 40 still living with their folks and addicted to nominally juvenile pursuits (toys, pornography, “Star Wars”) seems like grist for the comedy mill or a newspaper trend piece. Mostly, though, it sounds like an idea that was hatched (Mr. McKay?) in waggish reaction to yet another movie review carping about how American comedies are stuck in adolescence. They are, and have been. (“Hey Abbott!”) What’s distinct about the recent cycle of comic juvenilia are its contemporary contours — male camaraderie and self-actualization combined with raunchy guffaws and a preoccupation with women that doesn’t extend to giving them interesting roles — and the ease with which its prominent practitioners are willing to recycle their own laughs to increasingly diminished ends.
So, once again, there is the spectacle and pathos of the sexually stunted immature male, here times two: Brennan (Mr. Ferrell) and Dale (Mr. Reilly). Richard Jenkins plays Dale’s crinkly father, Robert, while Mary Steenburgen, as Brennan’s mother, Nancy, takes the fantasy parent role: she’s saintly, sexy — her relaxed, ready smile telegraphs satisfaction — and endlessly patient. She looks good for a woman who would have had her youngest at about 14. Brennan and his insufferable brother, Derek (Adam Scott), both strong arguments for adolescent birth control, provide some of the crueler sport in “Step Brothers,” evincing mutual hostility that spills over into sadism. It’s hard to reconcile this nice woman with either Brennan or Derek, with his wolfish grin and winner-takes-everything mania.
That few girls and fewer credible women are allowed in the Apatow boys’ club is old news. The only distaff comedy here is provided by the enthusiastic Kathryn Hahn, who as Derek’s pitifully desperate wife, Alice, makes dexterous use of a bathroom urinal. Despite this bit of physical comedy, potty humor doesn’t play a large role in “Step Brothers,” which, like all of Mr. Apatow’s films, is firmly, perhaps self-consciously, rooted in what Freudians term the phallic stage of human development, not the anal. The phallic stage is supposed to be the time when little boys realize that little girls are built differently, which leads them to see their fathers as rivals for their mothers and in turn leads to castration anxiety.
Castration anxiety, at least in this movie, may explain the startling sight of Mr. Ferrell placing his scrotum (or a remarkably persuasive prosthetic) on a drum during one of Brennan and Dale’s full-rattle battles. The penchant for Apatow men letting it all hang out has become a familiar and much-discussed part of the factory formula. Dudes, I understand: You have penises. You’re nice and sort of blobby and you don’t look like Tom Cruise, but you’re real men. Hot-blooded, anatomically correct men, and no one should ever forget it, least of all the ladies that you can’t stop talking dirty about and hope one day to marry because, well, that’s the kind of good, hot-blooded, anatomically correct guys you are.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but recently it hasn’t gone anywhere new. Mr. Ferrell has made a big-screen career riffing on dimwitted innocence, sometimes aided by Mr. McKay’s sitcom styling. Some of their movies have been funny, others less so. Yet successful or not, these characters fit right in with Mr. Apatow’s band of horny and virginal (in spirit if not in flesh) boys and men. In “Step Brothers,” Brennan and Dale almost bring down the house by clinging to a delayed adolescence that makes them seem angry rather than playful and joyous. There’s a shadow of darkness to all their thudding blows and sputtering epithets, but is it the characters who are so fearful of growing up or is it their creators?
“Step Brothers” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). R for raunch.
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Adam McKay; written by Will Ferrell and Mr. McKay, based on a story by Mr. Ferrell, Mr. McKay and John C. Reilly; director of photography, Oliver Wood; edited by Brent White; music by Jon Brion; production designer, Clayton Hartley; produced by Jimmy Miller and Judd Apatow; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes.
WITH: Will Ferrell (Brennan Huff), John C. Reilly (Dale Doback), Richard Jenkins (Robert Doback), Mary Steenburgen (Nancy Huff), Adam Scott (Derek Huff) and Kathryn Hahn (Alice Huff).
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