The Will Ferrell/Adam McKay collaboration Anchorman is probably one of the funnier movies Will Ferrell has been involved in. Bringing in a collection of comedy superstars, from big names like Fred Willard and Christina Applegate to (then) lesser-known actors like David Koechner, Paul Rudd, and Steve Carell, it is probably Will Ferrell’s best-known and most beloved work as a starring actor. His best moments are still as a supporting actor (which is why I think he’s not a serious star), but Anchorman is pretty good.
The two teamed again for Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby, and added a new wrinkle in the form of excellent veteran character actor and personal favorite of mine John C. Reilly. It had its moments, but aside from the addition of Reilly and Sacha Baron Cohen, it wasn’t as good as Anchorman. The laughs were fewer, and the dumb Will Ferrell posturing increased dramatically.
Now, McKay, Ferrell, and Reilly are back with the comedy Step Brothers. If you haven’t guessed by the title, Ferrell and Reilly play emotionally-stunted middle-aged man-children who become step brothers. Well, okay, the emotionally-stunted middle-aged man-children part isn’t on display in the title, but I think that was implied by the name ‘Will Ferrell’ on the movie poster. If you came into this film expecting Wes Anderson, then you have my sympathies.
At a medical conference, Dr. Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins) is presenting his new hearing aid design. In the audience is the comely Nancy Huff (Mary Steenburgen, who doesn’t have a time-traveling boyfriend for once). There is an instant connection, leading to feverish making out while sharing their personal details. You know, the classic ‘getting to know you’ screw.
As it turns out, Robert and Nancy have a lot of things in common. They like the same sorts of food, they like sailing, and they both have emotionally-stunted middle-aged man-children who still live at home. Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell) is one of Nancy’s two children. Unlike his little brother Derek (Adam Scott), Brennan is a hopeless loser who still lives at home and can’t hold a job. Dale Doback (John C. Reilly) is the only son of Robert, who dropped out of college to join the family business. Unfortunately for Dale, his father is a doctor. Because both Dale and Brennan are basically worthless, when Robert and Nancy move in together, the kids come along for the ride and hilarity supposedly ensues. It doesn’t.
While there are some funny moments, including 3 or 4 big laughs, Step Brothers strains for edginess through a constant barrage of pointless foul language, including a lot of it directed at the two exasperated parents. When there’s not random swearing, there’s the inevitable bodily function joke or two, and lots and lots of John C. Reilly in his underwear. When the language tails off, that’s when the slapstick violence kicks in. If you like these things, you’ll probably enjoy this film, but for me Step Brothers tries way too hard to be crazy.
Yes, I know that with every Will Ferrell movie there’s pressure to top the antics of the previous films. Hence more cursing than Talladega, more sex references than Anchorman, and more underwear parading than both. What doesn’t result is more laughter, even with an incredibly unpleasant subplot involving Derek’s wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn), who must be schizophrenic given how her emotional ability threatens to surpass even Brennan. It’s rare to out Will Ferrell the man himself, but Kathryn Hahn tries her damnedest.
The big laughs actually come from mostly from Richard Jenkins as the exasperated Dr. Doback. Will Ferrell does his usual shtick, screaming and prancing and flailing wildly. John C. Reilly gamely joins in, though his character is the smarter and more grounded of the two step brothers. Mary Steenburgen’s Nancy has little to do other than be an enabler to the boys and serve as the indulgent voice versus Dr. Doback’s more frustrated, pushing authority figure (though this newfound forcefulness is roughly 30 years too late to help his indolent son).
Aside from the ending, which is a surprising change from how this sort of comedy usually signs off, there’s very little special about Step Brothers. There are some chuckles, but mostly the movie elicits mild chuckles at best. It wears thin pretty quickly.
I think that’s one of the things that bothered me about this film. Given that I liked Superbad, I obviously have no problems with a lot of vulgarity. There’s a significant amount of cruelty that takes away some of the supposed fun that should be had in Step Brothers that isn’t present in Superbad. Superbad has a heart; Step Brothers is pure id.