Published Jul 24, 2008When widower Robert (The Visitors Richard Jenkins, cashing a cheque) and divorcée Nancy (Mary Steenburgen) marry, the new family includes Dale (John C. Reilly) and Brennan (Will Ferrell), their unemployed, 40-ish, live-at-home sons. The gag, a variation on Ferrells by-now familiar Autism Spectrum Disorder brand of funny/awkward yocks, is that the unhappily blended duo act like un-socialised teenagers, scrapping and growling over Chewbacca masks, drum kits, ninja swords and tree house porn stashes in a battle to be the new alpha dog. This mini-Brady Bunch has one-third the bodies but 30 times the douchebaggery.
Measured against the rest of Ferrells rapidly metastasising oeuvre, all this territorial pissing drags Step Brothers down (or up) to whole new levels of family-unfriendliness. As with Talladega Nights and Anchorman, comedy godhead Judd Apatow takes only a producer credit, leaving Ferrell and director/co-writer Adam McKays to run the show; Knocked Up or The 40 Year Old Virgins wise/redemptive gene here remains entirely recessive.
Even the stout of heart and loose of morals may be put off by the incessant, genitalia-obsessed crudity; "Id like to roll you up in a little ball and carry you around in my vagina is fairly indicative of the calibre of badinage. (On the plus side, if prosthetic scrotums are your, ahem, bag, you need look no further.) Doubtlessly violating a generation of screenwriting manuals, SB employs a slightly clunky four-act structure: the brothers clash, bond, split-up and re-bond. The early bits can feel a little tossed-off and too obviously improvisational Ferrell in particular seems underutilised and uninspired but things improve as we progress. Adam Scott and Kathryn Hahn as Brennans hilariously dick-headed, high-achieving younger brother and his repressed, Stepford-ised wife are especially helpful here.
Inevitably, reality is obliged to intrude and the boys do a little bit of reluctant growing up. But, thanks largely to a rousing Neil-Peart-meets-Andrea-Bocelli musical finale, we aging Peter Pans are reassured that no one should go overboard in stifling their rambunctious inner child.
For many, the only salient question will be whether SB gives Ferrell adequate space to stretch his legs, and the answer is a qualified yes. His soul-baring, a cappella Bonnie Raitt cover goes in the time capsule and a generation will cringe at his bathmat-and-sink solution to an unexpected toilet paper crisis. But the picture ultimately belongs to the emergent Reilly, whose career, like Paul Rudds before him, has jumped to a higher orbit with membership in the Apatow Players.
Not quite Old School but certainly no Bewitched, SB is an amiable summer distraction, and at minimum a nice palate-cleansing post-Dark Knight pick-me-up. (Sony)