By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Inquiring about “Step Brothers,” Will Ferrell’s latest comedic belly whop into the adolescent muck and mire, someone asked, “Isn’t that about two fortyish guys acting like they’re fourteen?” To which I replied, “No, actually, it’s about two fortyish guys acting like they’re seven.”
It is the junk food of film…a Twinkie of empty-headed calories offering no truly good reason to indulge, other than that its absurdity is deliciously funny. Knowing that filmgoers cannot live on weighty and/or pretentious fare alone, its R-rated naughtiness beckons from the Cineplex. But it might as well be a doorway in the bad part of town.
Which means, as with the bulk of Adam Sandler movies, you see it wearing a Groucho mask or practice an apology lest someone from the Nobel committee espies you exiting the Bijou. There are no awards here, but it is a marvel that director Adam McKay keeps the premise afloat until at least the three-quarter point, when its clichés begin to show.
Credit for the estimable job of suspending our disbelief goes to Mary Steenburgen and journeyman Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”). As older newlyweds Nancy and Robert—each with a grown son who never left home—who meld this unlikely stepfamily, their unblinking effort to create domestic tranquility is the stuff of skilled straight men.
Naturally, John C. Reilly’s Dale Doback and Will Ferrell’s Brennan Huff not only bring their issues to the arrangement, but create some new ones as well. His digs invaded, Dale is understandably territorial. But when he warningly points to the room where reside his precious drums, we know the verboten skins represent a running gag in the making.
As if it weren’t enough that they never left the nest, each in turn has a quirk or tragedy that is offered, take it or leave it style, to explain their indolence. Recently laid off, “not fired” from PetSmart, Brennan claims a trauma in his youth keeps him from performing in public. Otherwise, he’s “one of the best singers in the world.”
Dale’s lack of motivation isn’t quite so clear. Explains Dr. Doback to his new bride, “One day he drops out of college and tells me he wants to go into the family business.” Never mind that he isn’t a doctor.
The reality is, both Brennan and Dale have full-time occupations they work at quite well. In fact, when it comes to the practice of arrested development, they are specialists. Which is essentially the appeal of this well-worked looniness.
On a conscious level, chiding and berating the stunted growth under scrutiny, we derive laughter. However, there is other stuff at work here. Via fables long pre-dating J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” what adult in this Earthly pageant has not at one time or another melancholily pined for the care and protection of a Mommy and Daddy?
Of course, not many of us put that fantasy into play with the verve and relish exhibited by our title characters. It’s the hyperbole that makes it so crazy. The deadpan acceptance by an enabling step mom and dad adds to the outlandishness. And after the parents have finally had it up to here, the tough love they institute opens a silly new jar of pickles.
The change in attitude is prompted courtesy of Brennan’s younger, exponentially more successful brother, Derek (Adam Scott). A smirky, lower case tycoon, he informs Robert and Nancy that he can sell their house for more than enough cash to put them on that endless yacht trip around the world. Brennan and Dale don’t figure in the retirement plan.
Yikes! That means the boys—who by this juncture have bonded into such a synergistic petulance so as to make Derek’s offer all the more attractive— will have to find work.
While that may be tough noogies for the protagonists, Ferrell and Reilly have a hallowed template to inspire them. Just when weren’t Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello looking to get on someone’s payroll?
This isn’t to say the job hunt montage equals in drollery the efforts of those antecedents. Still, when they show up in matching tuxedos to interview for a position cleaning bathrooms, they do the shtick proud. It’s part and partial of the subtext. Enfolded in the feature-length paean to immaturity are the nutty notes of subversiveness and rebellion.
Indeed, for most of us the days of irresponsibility must, alas, give way to alarm clocks and tiresome bosses. If and how our overgrown boys belatedly face that music is the question. Sure, it’s sheer madness. But for those seeking an uplifting change of pace.
After “The Dark Knight” and “The X Files,” “Step Brothers” is a stride in that direction.
“Step Brothers,” rated R, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Adam McKay and stars Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly and Richard Jenkins. Running time: 95 minutes