25 July 2008

Step Brothers

Step Brothers

The Judd Apatow comedy family tree has two branches (though there usually is some crossover). One includes actors like Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill and Leslie Mann, and has resulted in some of my favorite films of the last few years—The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Then there is the Will Ferrell/Adam McKay/John C. Reilly branch, which is responsible for Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Walk Hard—movies that have their moments but lack the honesty and heart of the other group's output. That would be a kind description of their latest effort, Step Brothers, a movie that seems to have never evolved beyond the basic concept stage.

Ferrell and Reilly play immature, middle-aged men who never left home and are forced to share a room when they become step brothers. OK. Now what?

The movie, directed by McKay and written by McKay and Ferrell based on a story by Ferrell, McKay and Reilly (Ferrell and McKay also have executive producer credits), fails to come up with a satisfactory answer.

Ferrell's Brennan Huff and Reilly's Dale Doback hate each other initially, and that sets the insults and worse flying back and forth. They form an alliance when they settle on a greater foe—Brennan's brother Derek (Adam Scott)—and become instant best friends. Forced by their parents to move out and get jobs, they try to start an entertainment corporation, though what kind of entertainment they aim to provide isn't clear.

The underlying chemistry between Ferrell and Reilly almost keeps the movie watchable, but the "jokes" are too mean-spirited to be funny and the characters too obviously movie constructs for us to relate to them. As over the top as he was, even Anchorman's Ron Burgundy had a shred of humanity in him.

A Seth Rogen cameo offers hope—until the scene ends with a fart joke.

Far too often, the movie falls back on this sort of broad "humor" and tired physical gags. I know there is a statement about modern parenting buried in here, but everyone is too busy being crude for the sake of being crude—and painfully unfunny—for any kind of serious message to resonate.

Everyone involved should be above this level of sophomoric material. Ferrell is an underrated actor whose talent shines brightest when he shoots for subtlety (see Stranger Than Fiction, parts of Old School). Before chasing comedy stardom, Reilly was a wonderful character actor; his resume includes an Oscar nomination for Chicago. All they accomplish here is the embarrassment of Mary Steenburgen (Brennan's mom) and Richard Jenkins (Dale's dad), two veteran actors who deserve better.

I'm sure McKay, Ferrell and Reilly are having a blast together. But if Step Brothers is the best they can do, it's past time for them to go their separate ways.


(Rated R for crude and sexual content, and pervasive language. 95 minutes.)

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