A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, R, 92 mins.

Brennan Huff: Will Ferrell / Dale Doback: John C. Reilly / Nancy Huff: Mary Steenburgen / Robert Doback: Richard Jenkins / Derek: Adam Scott

Directed by Adam McKay / Written by Will Ferrell and McKay.

I noticed two truly disturbing sights during STEP BROTHERS.

The first was the sight of Will Ferrell unzipping his pants to take out his testicles in his hand so he could then dump them on his stepbrother’s highly prized, do-not-touch-or-else drum set.  The other - perhaps even more disturbing - thing I noticed was a family of five sitting behind me, consisting of a mother, a father, and three children that all seemed no older than five or six-years-old, all laughing maniacally with capricious glee. 

Alas…I could not join them in the merriment. 

If STEP BROTHERS is some parents’ idea of an enjoyable night out at the movies for the whole family, than I single-handedly have lost all faith in the human race.  What thought possessed this clueless couple that this film was in any way shape or form age appropriate for their young tykes?  Last I checked the imdb.com, this film was rated R for crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, and pervasive language."  

Hmmmm…was JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH: 3D sold out in the adjacent cinema?

STEP BROTHERS is as nauseatingly unfunny of a comedy as I have seen in many a moon.  This is a gigantic shame, considering that it has the likes of the hysterically droll Will Ferrell – the unapologetic king of self-humiliation and self-debauchery – and John C. Reilly, the latter not especially as appreciated as the former for his comedic skills, but who nevertheless has proven himself to be a very competent and funny charlatan and doofus.  The film also boasts producer Judd Apatow, who has radically redefined the romantic dramady with THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN and KNOCKED UP, and the director and co-writer is Adam McKay, who helmed two of Ferrell’s most knee-slappingly funny films, ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY and TALLADEGA NIGHTS, THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY. 

My expectations for this film were, I guess, inanely high.  Perhaps what is the most unsettling about STEP BROTHERS is not how unacceptably unfunny the film is, but how utterly lackluster the film is with even approximating comedy.  STEP BROTHERS certainly earns its R rating from a pure, almost reprehensible, level of lewdness.  This is one of the most filthy, potty-mouthed comedies I have seen in awhile.  The difficulty is not that the film has a dirty vernacular; the real problem with the film is that it goes out of its way to use every variation of the f-bomb and every other naughty word to inspire laughs.  To me, that is so condescendingly short-sided and feeble-minded on the part of all participants involved: it represents comedy at its most lethargic.

Now…wait a tick…does this mean that I have immediately become a cinematic prude?  Hardly.  Offensive language does not disturb me, nor does it offend me, per se.  Some of the greatest comedies of all time have utilized the saltiest of language.  Some of the most respected and influential of comedians have used gutter slang for the sake of their art.  The key distinction with those films and performers is that they never used bad words to serve as the jokes themselves as STEP BROTHERS does so feverously.  Comedians like the late George Carlin used foul words to oftentimes point out universal ironies or subtle truths about the human existence.  Some like Richard Pryor used them as exclamation marks to cap off their jokes.   

Would-be funny films likes STEP BROTHERS thinks that simply using bad language will be enough to get people to laugh uncontrollably.  Because of this, the film is startlingly infantile in its approach:  There are very few moments of actual comic inspiration here on display, nor is there any well timed sights gags, whimsical dialogue, or delightfully likeable loser characters (a key staple trait of Ferrell’s on-screen presonas) that we cling to for cheerfulness.  Instead, we get gifted comic actors parade around scenes engaging in endless vulgarity without a point at all…other than to prove how many times they can say bad words and get away with it.   

That’s not the only problem here.  STEP BROTHERS is never really able to sustain its comic premise, and one that has been done to death far, far too much: that of old, middle-aged men that have no level of maturity and instead act like pre-pubescent boys.  Hoo-hoo.  Some films, like the before mentioned 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, kind of had a similar theme, but its handling of its main character resonated more realistically, which helped harness the film’s comedy and drama much better.  The man-child characters Ferrell and Reilly play here are from a whole other warped, twisted, and fantastical planet.  Yes, Ferrell has played incredible simpletons before, like Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby, and most recently Jackie Moon.  Those men are Shakespearean foils compared to his role in STEP BROTHERS. 

The plot is like one big overly simplistic and prosaic Saturday Night Live sketch played out to the mind numbing length of 90-plus minutes. Once the particulars are established, the film just languishes on the screen from one train-wreck moment to the next.  The underlining story must have been plotted out on a cocktail napkin: Nancy (Mary Steenburgen) and Robert (Richard Jenkins) meet and very quickly fall in love.  Both have one commonality: they have sons in their 40’s that still live at home and are unemployed, not to mention that they are hopelessly underachieving losers.  Nancy’s son, Brennan (Ferrell) is a momma lovin’ wuss and Robert’s son, Dale (Reilly) has an analogous relationship with daddy.  When Robert and Nancy get married they inevitably move in together and their kids become stepbrothers and, of course, hate each other’s guts with a passion. 

The two, alas, are able to reconcile with one another, primarily because they are so much alike: they both sleep walk, both have no jobs, both share the same tastes in dinosaurs and men they would have sex with if they were a woman, and, most crucially, they both really despise the Golden Boy of the family, Brennan’s super cocky, arrogant, and high achieving younger brother (Adam Scott).  Eventually, the two step bros decides to enact some kick ass vengeance on Brennan’s younger sibling, who has been a constant thorn in his side for the longest of times. 

For a film about men that act like spoiled, rowdy, and mentally dysfunctional children, I suppose the humor in the film is equally undeveloped – it certainly feels less like the work of talented comic personas and more like it was written from the mindset of a 10-year-old.  The film’s non-stop barrage of disturbingly dirty language is squirm inducing, especially when as previously stated, in serves to act as the source of laughs itself.  The sights gags are also crude and moronically inept.  A scene in particular showing Ferrell’s choice of what to use to wipe his rear end when he has run out of toilet paper seems bereft of comic ingenuity.  Equally unrefined and uninspired are scenes involving characters passing gas, licking dog poop, and masturbating to workout videos.  There is one funny sight gag, which involves Dale smacking an unruly Brennan upside the head with a cymbal, and a music video within the film - which showcases the pair as bumbling rappers - has some moments of pep.  Yet, the whole film seems so curiously bankrupt of witty and joyous vitality.   

On a plus, the two lead performers do give it their all.  Ferrell and Reilly have good comic chemistry and have played off of one another marvelously (see TALLADEGA NIGHTS) and they can easily morph into their hopeless naïve and dopey characters with ease.  These are two exceptional comedians that are stunted by an inept writing.  Then there is the beyond unforgivable handling of Richard Jenkins’ skills.  He gave one of the most graceful and delicately low-key performances of the year in THE VISITOR, but here in STEP BROTHERS he’s forced to shameless mug the camera and overtly ham up his character to egregious levels.  Mary Steenburgen’s work is dreadfully and agonizingly embarrassing.  These two characters never once feel like a tangibly married couple, nor do they seem like plausible parents.

STEP BROTHERS is an exceptional achievement at overwhelming viewers with shoddy, lame-brained, and puerile jokes and lowest-common-denominator sight gags.  The audience I was with howled at nearly every single minute during the screening I was at...and this frightened me.  Have modern filmgoer sensibilities sunk so disastrously low?  The great screen comedies worked excruciatingly hard for their laughs, and part of the enjoyment derived from them was in the appreciation factor: they never took the easy route for a laugh.  STEP BROTHERS always takes the easy route.  It’s funny, but I have derived so much pleasure from watching Ferrell and Reilly play such affably childish characters in their past comedies.  After sitting through their insidiously schlocky and obscene-for-no-purpose, boys-to-men comedy, all I wished for was for them to grow up for their next comic outing.

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