Will Ferrell and Adam McKay turned Pearl, a trash-mouthed toddler, into a superstar with a hilarious clip on their website Funny or Die. Step Brothers seems like a natural extension of that clip. You can almost picture Ferrell and McKay asking, "What's funnier than a baby who says bitch?" "Eleven-year-olds who say f*ck." "And what's even funnier than that?" "If Johnny [C. Reilly] and I play the eleven-year-olds." In Step Brothers, Ferrell and Reilly let out their inner pre-teen in a film that seems to suggest that a 40-year-old who lives at home with his single parent is destined to regress back to pre-adolescent behavior like not knowing how to kiss a girl, playing in a treehouse, and picking a favorite dinosaur. Like a lot of improvisational comedies, Step Brothers is widely hit-and-miss, but the complete glee that Ferrell and Reilly throw into their characters is infectious and, when they do hit, it includes some of the funniest material of the year. There are jokes in Step Brothers that fall as flat as an Adam Sandler movie, but there's also a shocking amount of stuff in here that makes me smile just thinking about it, and I haven’t been able to say that about many of the comedies of ‘08. Ferrell and McKay miss just enough to keep Step Brothers from being the comedy classic that it could have been, but, by the same token, they connect more than enough to make this the first summer comedy really worth your money.
Step Brothers wastes no time setting up its title. During the opening credits, we meet Dr. Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins) and Nancy Huff (Mary Steenburgen), who fall in love and get married after a brief fling. Doback has a loser son named Dale (Reilly), who appears to spend most of his time wearing a Chewbacca mask, looking at nudie mags, or doing both at the same time. Huff has a similar model - Brennan (Ferrell), a lazy dude who can't keep a job and is over-protective of his mother and jealous of his successful brother. These guys are not your average half-assed "movie lazy guys." They are full-blown, abrasive morons, to the point that the first act made me a little uncomfortable because I wasn't sure that they weren't both mentally handicapped. They're just a step up from the pair in Dumb and Dumber, but with much dirtier minds and mouths.
At first, Brennan and Dale hate each other. The antagonism of two grown men threatening to kill each other over perceived slights like touching a drum kit or staring too long is pretty funny, but the first act of Step Brothers is actually the weakest. It's a little too long, too predictable, and you've seen the best stuff in the preview. Luckily, Brennan and Dale become best friends relatively quickly, and Step Brothers develops into an unexpected buddy comedy - two morons against the world. When Dr. Doback meets Nancy's other son, the creepy Derek (Adam Scott), the plot actually goes in some interesting, unexpected directions.
Ferrell has had some misfires recently - Semi-Pro, Stranger Than Fiction, Bewitched - but he's in complete control of Step Brothers, and it proves once again why he's a star. But as funny as Will is in Step Brothers, he's at least matched, and, in many ways surpassed, by both Reilly and the great Richard Jenkins (who gives a speech at the end about his childhood dream that is one of my favorite moments of the year). Everyone in Step Brothers is strong, but what sets it apart from the horrible summer of comedy that we've suffered through so far is its surreal, left-field twists and turns. After the semi-traditional, "antagonist brothers" set-up, Step Brothers continued to surprise me (no more so than during a HILARIOUS subplot featuring an affair between Dale and his new sister-in-law played by the fantastic Kathryn Hahn that features the least sexy bathroom quickie in movie history). A Billy Joel cover band, the funniest fart scene of the year, Brennan’s response to therapy, Dale's amazing reaction to Brennan's singing - there's so much unpredictable comedy in Step Brothers, and humor is so much better when you can't see the jokes coming from a mile away. There's a bit too much gross-out humor in Step Brothers, but the final hour is probably the funniest of the year to date, which is more than enough to recommend it. Comedy has fallen on hard times lately - can you think of a big-screen laugh riot this year that you'd really recommend to anyone? - but, with Step Brothers and such upcoming high-profile comedies like Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express, maybe there's still some hope for 2008 yet.
Rating: THREE BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: July 25th, 2008
Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, Adam Scott, and Kathryn Hahn
Director: Adam McKay
Writers: Will Ferrell and Adam McKay