Detractors who see Step Brothers as the herald of a now fully and irrevocably declined culture may take comfort from the traditional values-intensive leadership of George W. Bush, whom it quotes by way of introduction: “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”
Writer-director Adam McKay, the man behind Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, takes it from here, with essential help from Talladega’s co-stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, who conceived this story with McKay as well as star in it.
Only fools rush in: Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly continue to brainwash America with goofballery and floppy guts in Step Brothers. They’ll stop making these films when you stop loving ’em, people.
There’s no subtitle for Step Brothers, but it doesn’t need one. We have seen already the totally righteous film poster, a complete work of art unto itself: There they are, in the familiar canned Americana of the family photo-op, posed in complementary argyle sweater vests over button-down Oxfords, with their slightly doughy mugs, their barely Brillo-ish hair, and those guileless, sorta glazed, goofball looks in their eyes. So simple, so delightful. It’s iconic in an almost Chaplinesque way, evoking instant mirth everywhere in the world at once.
No, this isn’t to say that we have a pair of Charlie Chaplins on our hands. But we do have, pretty much, the Pacino and De Niro of retarded-adolescent comedy. Say what you will about the bit itself, these guys are completely committed.
The story? Sparks fly for Dr. Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins) and Nancy Huff (Mary Steenburgen) when they discover that they each have a useless, spoiled son who’s been living at home for about 40 years. Hers is Brennan (Ferrell); his, Dale (Reilly). They all move in together. Well, you can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your family. Wait, is that how the saying goes?
While co-habitating, the almost-siblings discover things about each other and themselves. For instance, they have a common foe in Brennan’s younger brother Derek (Adam Scott), who sells houses and helicopters and is a pompous, overachieving prick—a most impressive young lad in the doctor’s estimation, but actually, in his way, more entitled (and entitled to an ass-kicking) than the two step brothers combined. It’s through him, in fact, that the movie declares itself more than just a crass celebration of childish unseriousness. Step Brothers’ most acidly funny moments come from sharp hostility toward Derek and his kind, which means real empathy for Brennan and Dale and theirs. First, the man-boys stage elaborate and fearless burlesques to frighten off prospective buyers of their house and to freak Derek out; then, they make a funny go of learning his corporo-frat-bro lingo.
Without over-Hallmarking it, Step Brothers finds room within its ridiculous, unjustified plot for a prudent comment on what we think being grown up means today, and for a triumph of incorruptible sincerity over the ultimately more stunting meanness and egotism. Sometimes the jokes stall, but there’s barely any dead air here at all. And while it helps having Jenkins and Steenburgen to class it up, it also helps having Ferrell and Reilly being hilarious. These two are pros, and have nearly perfected the low but worthy art of the movie that looks so stupid you can’t wait to see it.