I get the sinking feeling that writing a comedy movie takes little more than a case of beers and Judd Apatow’s back patio. Because Step Brothers feels like something that Apatow, Adam McKay and Will Ferrell whipped up one night after a twelve-pack of Schlitz. Maybe they dug through one of Ferrell’s old notebooks from his SNL days and found a sketch idea that didn’t pass Lorne Michel’s muster. Whatever formula they used, it didn’t work. Step Brothers is as predictable as the preview. And knowing how well Ferrell performed in Stranger Than Fiction makes Step Brothers all the more painful to endure.
Ferrell and constant movie buddy John C. Reilly are once again overblown man-children incapable of acting like adults. Their respective parents have decided to get married, making Ferrell and Reilly step brothers. Like all newly-made families, they at first dislike one another. But once it’s clear that they are basically each playing the same character, complete with thrift store Palm Beach ’88 t-shirts and short fro haircuts, they become best friends. Their parents, played well enough by Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins, realize that the only way their marriage is going to work is if they can finally convince the boys to act like men. And thus we have the ultimatum to get jobs and move out within the month.
The problem is that any right-thinking moviegoer ought to question this basic premise right out of the gate. These two parents let their sons get to 40 years old before making this ultimatum? Most kids get this speech somewhere around 22 years old. So what happened in those intervening years? Even glossing over that fact with statements like “the first divorce was hard on him,” we’re left wondering why these parents have been enablers for so long, only to come to this realization now that they want to retire and sail around the world. So it was okay to let the boys go on like this up until the point that they finally made plans for the golden years? Weak sauce, script writers.
Equally confusing is the fact that Ferrell has a younger brother who has become all that he is not. Adam Scott is Derek, a successful young executive of a helicopter rental firm with the perfect blonde wife and pair of well behaved kids. But we can’t have our main characters outshone by base reality here, so it turns out that Derek is a total jerk and his wife is unhappy with his over controlling ways. The relationship between these two biological brothers is actually the only honest portrayal of humans in the film, and one of the things that might actually keep an audience seated until the credits roll.
Regardless of this tiny bit of reality, most of the film comes across as so far fetched that it becomes hard to swallow after the first half hour. These characters aren’t just goofy, they’re almost mentally handicapped – even a real life 20-something man-child knows not to wear a tuxedo to a job interview.
Once finally kicked out of the parents’ house, Ferrell and Reilly are forced to find jobs, and Ferrell ends up begging his little brother for one. Ferrell manages to excel in renting helicopters and is given managing control of the firm’s biggest annual event. It is towards the end of our predictable denouement that the two brothers make up for years of dislike with an awkward hug that only ends in them attempting to throttle one another.
It is this kind of physical comedy where the movie actually ekes out a few laughs. The misbegotten hug, the schoolyard fight with ten-year-old bullies and a couple good fight scenes between Ferrell and Reilly are worth a chuckle or two. But that may be because any well done physical gag is worth a laugh, and it doesn’t take much to get the audience to chortle over a shovel to the face or a kick to the groin.
But a few chuckles do not a comedy movie make, and it’s probably time for Ferrell to throw in the towel or at least go on an indefinite writing hiatus. When first presented with his bumbling idiot character back in Anchorman it was a fun concept. But now that he’s worn it in to the ground through countless McKay and Apatow collaborations, it is high time he moved on to another formula. Better yet, he should move on to a better genre, because you know that Ferrell can actually produce a quality movie when he puts more into it than a couple cold ones.
– Jennifer Von Freeden