“Step Brothers” is a rowdy, rambunctious, fitful, against-the-wall comedy. Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, and director writer Adam McKay heave comedy, like spaghetti, against the wall. About half sticks; the other half makes a real mess.
“Step Brothers” may be the most uneven movie of the year. It can be very funny, at times one laughs despite himself. When “Step Brothers” is at its best, it is humorous and human.
The four leads, Ferrell, Reilly, Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen, have very likable personalities and keep their interaction gaily bouncing.
“Step Brothers” is the story of two single parents (Jenkins and Steenburgen) who get married and bring their two adult, slacker, doofus sons (Ferrell and Reilly) to live with them. Arrested adolescence breaks out, and chaos ensues.
When “Step Brothers” is at its worst, it is dominated by the smirk of self-indulgence. Too often it careens off the rails of comedy. One reason is that McKay et al. have fallen in love with improvisation. Reportedly they shot the script and then did improvised versions.
The improv gives the movie the feeling of spontaneity, some freshness, and a creative spark. It also produces dissonance, inflation and egotism. “Step Brothers” reeks of egotistical redundancy.
Will Ferrell is the dynamo that runs his movie. Jimmy Caan, who starred with him in “Elf,” recently told me about Ferrell: “He's got more balls than anybody I ever met. I mean, he'll do anything.”
In “Step Brothers” Ferrell literally tries to give evidence to support Caan's comment.
Ferrell has a careening narcissistic streak. He mugs and does pratfalls with shameless enthusiasm. It's often funny, but there's no brake on his runaway shtick. When Ferrell has nobody controlling him he turns out dreck such as this year's “Semi-Pro.” His best films are the most controlled, when director Jon Favreau (Elf) or McKay (Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby) is overseeing his antics.
I put “Talladega Nights” on my 10 best list of 2006, because it was wild, but also witty and subversive. With “Step Brothers,” McKay seems to have surrendered some of his better instincts.
“Step Brothers” has a touch of the subversive, the song “Who Gets the Family Bible?” but just a touch.
Step Brothers is the sort of movie that needs one more major edit: someone to come in and cut the fat.
One sleepwalking scene is fine, but three sleepwalking scenes (plus one at the end of the credits) makes us glaze over. “Step Brothers” is another film that goes beyond its natural end. It has an ending that is sentimental and conclusive, but it lurches beyond that.
Perhaps the actor who is most effected by the no-holds-barred sensibility is Richard Jenkins (Robert Doback). Jenkins was terrific in “The Visitor” and will probably get an Oscar nomination for his performance. In “Step Brothers” as the father of Dale (Reilly), Jenkins is quite funny, but he's given some scenes that
don't work. His infatuation with the unctuous Derek, Ben's brother (Adam Scott), doesn't make sense. And he rants and raves and rants, when a few rants would have
John C. Reilly is crudely appealing as Dale, and Mary Steenburgen is her usual amiable but put-upon self as Ben's mom.
For Will Ferrell, it seems that too much is not enough. One guesses that Ferrell had to be talked out of playing both step brothers. Fortunately Reilly stepped in.
Ferrell is a manic juggler. But as much as he tries, he isn't always able to keep his balls in the air.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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