July 24, 2008

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Step Brothers (R)
Forced to live together when their parents marry, two 40-year-old adolescents find in each other a partner in slackerdom in Step Brothers, another stupid-funny celebration of man-boyhood that succeeds entirely because of the strange chemistry of the earnest screw-ups played by John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell.

Nancy Huff (Mary Steenburgen) and Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins) meet at a medical conference and quickly fall in love with each other, introducing themselves to each other as they’re making out in a hotel room. Shortly thereafter, they’re married, much to the dismay of their two sons, Brennan Huff (Ferrell) and Dale Doback (Reilly). Though both “boys” are about 40, they still live at home and, like 11-year-olds on spring break, laze around the house hitting up their parents for cash and spending more hours than not in front of the TV. When Nancy moves in with Robert, Brennan at first refuses to get out of the car and then starts exchanging hostile stares with Dale, who sees Nancy as an intrusion on an all-dude world.

For all that they hate each other, however, Brennan and Dale soon learn that they hate something else more. Something else besides work and basic personal hygiene. They both hate Derek (Adam Scott), Brennan’s snotty overachieving younger brother. Allowing this shared opinion — along with a shared interest in martial arts and a shared ambition for vague careers in music — to bring them together, Brennan and Dale soon find that they are not only best friends but truly brothers in arms in the constant battle with their parents to keep up their slug-like lifestyle.

What can you say about a movie wherein a particularly lengthy fart is a minor plot point, where a group of children beat up two grown men and where most of the humor is so R-rated I can’t even really describe it? At one point in this movie, a car careens into oncoming traffic and is then yanked back into its lane by the driver after the car’s passengers scream for dear life. I’m not sure what kind of comedy that is, but that sense of “Aaaaggh! Oh, ha!” pretty much describes the comedy stylings of this entire movie.

Ferrell and Reilly, so excellent in Anchorman and even in the not-so-excellent Semi-Pro, remain the perfect comedy team here. Their characters’ stupidity and juvenile attitudes perfectly mesh with each other. When Brennan threatens to rub certain parts of his anatomy on Dale’s drum set, Dale responds with a yell that is the perfect mix of whine and violent threat. When the boys (who have to share a bedroom) whisper threats to each other across the gulf between their beds, it is with a dead-on blend of shocking profanity and “nuh-uh”-ish kidness. I was struck at certain points in this film how Reilly and Ferrell really sell their man-boy performances with the little physical gestures, like the teenage eye-roll and the bobbing, cocked-neck way that a teenager stands when he is saying with his entire body “whatever.” Neither will likely see any Oscar gold from this movie but I do think it takes some serious ability to make oneself this successful at being this much of a jerk.

It’s hard to talk about this movie’s strangeness without a bit of SPOILER ALERT-requiring discussion. Of all Ferrell’s stupid-is-the-new-funny comedies, Step Brothers is probably the most openly screwy. Instead of coming down on the side of maturity and personal growth (which, arguably, the other Ferrell-as-oblivious-narcissist movies kinda did), Step Brothers encourages its misfits to proudly wear their Chewbacca masks of freakness and ride their arrested adolescence as long as they can. There are parents who would recognize these “kids” and their parents’ frustration at their boys’ lack of meaningful development but this movie doesn’t ultimately give those caretakers of middle-aged children the fantasy happy ending that a lesser comedy might. The movie grows (letting us know how screwed up it thinks its characters are) but its characters remain blissfully emotionally stunted.

Step Brothers is either the funniest on-purpose comedy I’ve seen in weeks or the most disturbing movie of the year. But, as end-of-civilization as its humor might be, I’ll admit it, I laughed. B

Rated R for crude and sexual content, and pervasive language. Directed by Adam McKay and written by McKay, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, Step Brothers is an hour and 33 minutes long and will open in wide release on Friday, July 25. The film is distributed by Sony Pictures.