Ample evidence of studio largesse arrives in the form of Step Brothers, a stumble-drunk, quarter-sketched, comedy of
beta-competitiveness centering around a pair of doubly emotionally stunted,
live-at-home 40-year-olds forced to share a room when their single
parents marry. The last line of the film? “It’s OK that mine’s not
movie quality,” which could very well describe this entire, wobbly-legged affair, a
weird and not very funny concoction obviously greenlit solely on the basis of its concept and the combined star power wattage of its co-writers and producers. In fact, if my surname were Apatow, Ferrell or McKay, I’d likely just go ahead and send my credit card statement to every studio in town, with a Post-It claiming it as an expense report; odds are it would be paid by week’s end.
Hatched by Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly and director Adam McKay immediately following the shoot for Talladega Nights, and produced by comedy everywhere-man-of-the-moment Judd Apatow, Step Brothers tells the story of Brennan Huff (Ferrell), a laid-off Pet Smart employee who lives with his mother Nancy (Mary Steenburgen). A quickie courtship between Nancy and Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins) leads to marriage, and soon Nancy and Brennan are moving in with Robert and his adult son Dale (Reilly), a layabout who fancies himself a drummer, and little else. As their narcissism and downright laziness threaten to tear the new family apart, these two middle-aged, immature, overgrown boys at first butt heads, then are forced to try to find jobs, then team up to form some sort of loosely defined entertainment company — all before going their bickering separate ways and then coming together again, in forced fashion.
It’s easy to see why Step Brothers sold, as a concept. Mirroring each other, in both curly locks, vintage T-shirts and apparent lack of ambition (Dale is a single child whose sense of entitlement has calcified into obstinance; Brennan is henpecked by a younger brother who’s a master overachiever and bully to boot), Ferrell and Reilly are a pleasant, engaging comedy duo. They each have an ability to remain likable, even when doing nasty things to one another.
A funny thing happens on the way to hilarity, though: namely, it just doesn’t happen. Ferrell and McKay, fashioning a screenplay out of chicken-wire and a few loose notions, fail to give us any real insight into these characters that prop them up as anything more than sketch-length ideas. The movie is an odd combination of silliness and foulness. Other bits just don’t follow — Dale has no problem asserting himself against Brennan, yet, in a bit seemingly nipped from Drillbit Taylor, he inexplicably cowers when bullied by neighborhood school kids?
There’s not a consistent tonal throughline here, and so moments that do score (like Dale registering his objection to a woman moving into the house thusly: “Dad, we take riverboat gambling trips, we shit with the door open, talk about pussy, make our own beef jerky — we’re men, that’s what we do!”) are of the self-made, stand-alone variety, and few and far between. Other bits (a prosthetic nut-sack cameo, say) just seem tacked on for effect. The film’s press notes tout “an insane, elaborate plan to bring their parents back together,” but that’s hardly an appropriate description of the plot, which basically amounts to a whole lot of screamed obscenity, with even Steenburgen getting in on the act.
As potentially gratingly one-note as it might have been, Step Brothers would likely have worked better as a straight-up, damn-the-consequences, territorial pissing match between two oblivious man-children. As is, the hate-love-détente arc between Brennan and Dale, while it affords a chance to work Ferrell singing “Por Ti Volaré” into the final product, just isn’t enough to sell the meager delights of this stretched-thin premise, nor are the cobbled together, supporting player familial bits (unctuous yuppie guy, sexually rapacious female) nipped from Wedding Crashers. Stick with your own family, or only hang out with these Step Brothers on a rainy weekend. (Columbia/Sony, R, 95 minutes)