Step Brothers

Reviewed by Gary Dretzka

After the semi-funny Will Ferrell vehicle Semi-Pro landed with a thud at the box-office last February, even his most ardent fans began to wonder how long the now-41-year-old could get away with playing essentially the same character, movie after movie, especially one several years his junior.

The former SNL stars agent, manager and banker probably are holding their collective breaths in anticipation of the release of Step Brothers, knowing only too well how little heat was generated by Semi-Pro, Stranger Than Fiction, The Producers, Winter Passing, Bewitched, Melinda and Melinda.

Fortunately for Ferrells fans and everyone else concerned, producers Judd Apatow and Jimmy Miller have surrounded Ferrell with the same creative A-team responsible for Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and several memorable episodes of Saturday Night Life. The braintrust included co-writer/director Adam McKay, co-star/writer John C. Reilly, cinematographer Oliver Wood, editor Brent White and production designer Clayton Hartley. Not everyone can exploit the sophomoric appeal in fart, piss, vagina and testicle gags, but Apatows crew does it without raising a sweat. (The folks who churn out flaccid-core titles for National Lampoon, for example, dont display a tenth the talent.)

Anyone whos seen a TV ad or trailer for Step Brothers will arrive at the theater knowing 80 percent of what will transpire in the next 90 minutes, or so. Farrell and Reilly play Brennan and Dale, a pair of 40-year-old layabouts forced to live under the same roof when ones mother marries the others father. Dale treats the invasion as if he was being forced to trade his precious drum kit and porn collection for a jackhammer and library card. Before long, however, they find much common ground upon which to build a brotherly relationship.

In the banality of their mutual interests and general disregard for civilized behavior, Brennan and Dale immediately recall grown-up versions of Beavis and Butt-Head. The writers also seem to have re-worked exchanges between Dirk Diggler and Reillys Reed Rothchild, from Boogie Nights. Both of the middle-age slackers have been allowed to live at home for their entire adult lives and work, when at all, for minimum wage. One sings, the other plays drums how well isnt revealed until the final reel.

If the screenplay doesnt allow Brennan and Dale to act their ages, at least Ferrell and Reilly dont have to pretend theyre still in their 20s. Their arrested development wears thin after a while, but, again, its probably what the actors fans expect. Eventually, when Mom and Dad decide to sell their house and fulfill a dream by sailing around the world, both men are forced to mature. Their half-hearted attempt to find a real job is hilarious.

Brennans more successful brother, Derek (Adam Scott), makes an appearance after most of the smoke from the nuptials and relocation has cleared. (He was too busy fishing to attend the wedding.) Derek is a name-dropper and bully, whose cruelty as a teenager thoroughly traumatized his brother. Dale sees right through Dereks efforts to pull the wool over the eyes of his father, however, and his contempt for his second stepbrother builds a bridge not only between himself and Brennan, but to Dereks much put-upon wife (Kathryn Hahn), as well.

Dereks machinations stretch these new bonds to the limit, and, when they snap, the fragile friendships and marriage are upended. The final third of the movie, then, necessarily is spent repairing everyones broken hearts. None of it stands up to close scrutiny, but, considering the high laughs-to-groans ratio, logic is irrelevant.

McKay keeps Step Brothers from straying too far into Adam Sandler territory by limiting overt sentimentality and never letting the melodramatic elements overwhelm the gloriously crass dialogue and intentionally childish behavior of his protagonists. No matter how expert Ferrell and Reilly may be at playing morons, though, there were several points in the movie where McKay had to apply the brakes, relieving viewers of any fears theyve simply been manipulated into laughing at a pair mentally retarded adults. In this regard, hes straddling the same thin wire as did Farrelly Brothers, when they were still making funny movies.

The most pleasant surprises in Step Brothers come in the fine performances turned in by the supporting cast. As the newly married couple, Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) and Mary Steenburgen (Melvin and Howard) are required to go toe-to-toe with their selfish, often belligerent children, and they give as good as they get. Their characters presence is essential to the story, and they get some of the funniest lines in the movie.

Hahn, a mainstay of NBCs Crossing Jordan, was almost unrecognizable as Dereks prime-and-proper wife, whose volcanic libido is awakened after Dale takes her egotistical spouse down a peg or two. Scott, who played a prick in HBOs Tell Me You Love Me, is every bit as loathsome here.

Ferrell and Reilly are as good as they need to be, given the material. This means that their fans will be rolling in the aisles, while more sober types stuff popcorn in their mouths to disguise their pleasure at being grossed out.

That said, this would be as good a time as any for both of these fine actors to consider spending less screen time together, no matter how lucrative the offers to team up again may be. Reilly, especially, ought to re-connect with his indie roots and embrace the types of roles created for him by Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorsese.

As one of the most prominent comedian-actors working today, it may be instructive to compare Ferrell's career to that of Jerry Lewis.

By the time Jerry Lewis turned 40, the furiously versatile actor/writer/director had demonstrated his ability to be funny in ways other than playing infantile pests. As talented as Ferrell is, he would do well do study Lewis elasticity in The Nutty Professor, The Bellboy, The Ladies Man, The Family Jewels, Artists and Models, The Caddy and, of course, Martin Scorseses The King of Comedy.

Cast

Will Ferrell
John C. Reilly
Mary Steenburgen
Richard Jenkins
Adam Scott
Kathryn Hahn
Andrea Savage

Credits

An Apatow Productions, Mosaic Media Group,Relativity Media production. Distributed by Columbia Pictures.
Produced by Judd Apatow and Jimmy Miller. Executive produced by Will Ferrell, David Householter, McKay.
Associate producer Jessica Elbaum
Co-producer Joshua Church
Screenplay: Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, from a story by Ferrell, McKay and John C. Reilly.
Directed by Adam McKay
Music by Jon Brion
Cinematography by Oliver Wood
Film Editing: Brent White
Production design: Clayton Hartley

MPAA rating R
Running Time: 90 Minutes