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Step Brothers   C-

Columbia Pictures / Relativity Media

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Adam McKay
Writers: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay
Cast: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Mary Steenburgen, Richard Jenkins, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Andrea Savage.

Review by Rob Vaux

What a calamitous summer for comedies. It's like the wreck of the Hindenburg out there: flaming wreckage fed by a steady supply of hubristic flop sweat as America's "funniest" people launch bomb after abysmally ill-conceived bomb. Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, and now Will Ferrell joined by the normally reliable John C. Reilly in Step Brothers. How bad have they been? They have all been trumped in the comedy department by Heath Ledger. Heath Ledger, a man who is:

  1. Not known for comedy.
  2. Still being mourned for his tragic and inexplicable death.
  3. Playing a character already regarded as the most terrifying since Hannibal Lecter.

Yet despite all that, Ledger literally -- literally -- stepped onscreen, said "Hi," and got a bigger laugh than all five of those other performers could muster in six-plus hours of active effort. If that's their idea of funny, pray to God they never attempt tragedy.

Step Brothers isn't the worst of the bunch, but it's certainly the most disappointing. It was co-written and directed by Adam McKay, the man behind Farrell's two best films, Anchorman and Talladega Nights. The success of those movies helps demonstrate why this one is such a failure (besides the fact that its laughs arrive fitfully, if at all). They presented the actor's patented man-child routine as representative of a larger social niche. Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby behaved the way they did because the world expected it of them: they were granted authority and respect that enabled them to maintain their delusional sense of entitlement. More importantly, it gave their antics a broader satirical edge that put their insufferable narcissism in context. Truly great comedies have come from similar conceits, and while Farrell's efforts don't rank among them, they can certainly score their share of laughs if presented well.

Step Brothers takes that edge away by eliminating the social implications. Instead of a third-tier television celebrity or self-important athlete -- granted privileges by out-of-whack cultural priorities -- it's simply a pair of 40-year-olds who act like toddlers. Both live with single parents, Brennan Huff (Ferrell) with his mother Nancy (Mary Steenburgen) and Dale Doback (Reilly) with his father Robert (Richard Jenkins). They basically lie around the house all day, playing video games and waiting for mommy/daddy to provide the pizza money. Then Nancy and Robert fall in love and get married, which forces the two useless lumps to coexist under the same roof.

That appears to be the limits of Step Brothers' thinking. Brennan and Dale initially hate each other until they realize how much they have in common, upon which time they join forces to inflict their grotesque sense of magical thinking on the rest of the world. Nominally that would be fine: Farrell and Riley have always exhibited terrific chemistry, and I confess that watching them alternate between petulant hostility and "best buds forever" holds the seeds of decent comedy. But it never progresses beyond the basic idea, remaining resolutely one-note throughout. "Look, they're grown men! And they behave like children!" Lather. Rinse. Repeat. It runs out of gas within the first 10 minutes. By the half-hour mark, you're ready to see them both devoured by starving dogs.

McKay mixes things up by periodically adding new characters, such as Brennan's odious type-A brother Derek (Adam Scott) and his trophy wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) who soon develops a serious case of the hots for Dale. Unfortunately, they're as off-putting as the leads, and the complete lack of recognizable human sympathies on screen cuts further into the potential for laughs. Once the general rhythm is established, the film remains stuck in neutral: feeding us a predictable diet of pratfalls and gross-out gags which everyone involved has performed far more successfully elsewhere.

Worst of all, Step Brothers never seems sure if it should condemn Brennan and Dale or lionize them. At times, it really wants to acknowledge just how screwed up they are -- mostly in thuddingly obvious pronouncements from Brennan's shrink (Andrea Savage) and sneering condemnations from Derek. Yet the climax does a complete 180 by painting them as beautiful dreamers whose terminal immaturity is merely a sign of how unique they are. "Why should they grow up?" the film finally asks. "They'd be boring if they did." Boring, yes, but also a lot less irritating.

Irritating is a matter of opinion, of course, as is humor. Step Brothers earns points by not overstretching itself, and the laughs, while sparse, may come more readily to those willing to overlook the movie's terminal flaws. But without a better sense of development, its jokes arrive with a disheartening undercurrent of exasperation -- utterly intolerable for such repetitive material. That Step Brothers represents a step up in this summer's comedy rally says absolutely nothing. If it doesn't actively offend, that's just because the carcasses surrounding it stink so badly that it can't help but benefit from the comparison. It may suffice for the undemanding, but one can only hope that Pineapple Express remembers how real laughs are supposed to work. God knows someone should.

Review published 07.26.2008.

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