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Step Brothers

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/25/08 00:00:00

"Good comedy, mediocre movie."
3 stars (Just Average)

When you’re watching “Step Brothers,” keep a close eye on Adam Scott. Sure, it’ll be tough, since the best punchlines belong to the two stars, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. But there, off to the side, is Adam Scott. Yes, Adam Scott. That guy who looks way too much like Wes Bentley. That guy from “Torque” and “The Return.”

You see, somewhere in the middle of this parade of ad lib excess lies this character, a slimy little weasel of an overachiever named Derek who, in a manner now familiar to fans of Will Ferrell comedies, is so over-the-top in his villainy that he becomes a parody of every smarmy yuppie to ever grace a 1980s teen flick. He’s like the guy who’s trying to turn the community center into a parking lot, the guy who’s challenged the hero to a ski race, the guy with the hot girlfriend who dumps him in the closing scene. Derek is that guy on Red Bull. And Scott plays him with a sort of demented sarcasm that turns the entire character into a wide-eyed punchline all its own. It’s brilliant.

The rest of the movie, though? Not so much. “Step Brothers,” the third big-screen collaboration between Ferrell and director McKay (they also churn out great stuff on a small scale for their Funny or Die website), shows some diminishing returns in the partnership. “Anchorman” was clumsy yet riddled with pockets of comedy perfection; “Talladega Nights” was clumsier yet had enough bursts of hilarity to see it through. “Step Brothers” (Ferrell and McKay co-wrote, with a story assist by Reilly) is clumsier still, and while it’s funny enough in spurts to be recommendable, it’s obvious there was too much winging it and not enough focus. This is a movie that didn’t get too far beyond its premise, and the whole thing reeks of the attitude of “Story? Who needs a story? We’ve got miles of film with Will and Johnny ad libbing! It’ll be great!”

Will and Johnny play Brennan and Dale, two jobless forty-year-olds still living at home. They are manchildren, and that’s the whole joke: two beefy adults who still think, dress, eat, talk, and act like spoiled preteens. When their respective single parents (Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins) get married and the boys are forced to share a bedroom, they react the way eleven-year-olds would in such a situation, first with childish hostility, then with friendship.

And that’s about as far as the movie got, ideas-wise. There’s some stuff about the boys going job hunting, dreaming up vague business opportunities, and maybe, just maybe, discovering adulthood, but most of this stuff is half-formed at best. At least with “Anchorman” and “Talladega,” there were things going on. Goofy things, sure, but things nonetheless. With “Step Brothers,” there’s not really much happening, and story ideas come and go too haphazardly, leaving the comedy feeling a little too empty.

In one section, the parents decide to sell the house, which would leave the boys on their own. So they concoct a series of pranks to scare off potential buyers. But the movie only gives us two pranks, then thoughtlessly drops the whole idea. The whole movie’s like that - a collection of bits and notions pasted together on the fly. “Things going on” is treated as nothing more than an obligation. (At least “Anchorman” and, to a lesser extent, “Talladega” gave us subversive toying with the very notion of plot expectations; “Step Brothers” can’t even be bothered with that.)

Fortunately, the bits and notions are always worth at least a chuckle, sometimes much more. Ferrell and McKay know how best to craft cluelessness and absurdity and catchphrases (expect to spend the next few months hearing about the Catalina Wine Mixer and the exclusivity of “80s Joel” from quote-loving fans). The decision to go for a hard-R rating opens the filmmakers to delicious profanity; the F-bomb gets plenty of mileage, all of it good, and once again we get man parts as punchline, as the good lord intended. The supporting cast, most notably Scott, Kathryn Hahn, and Rob Riggle, is always fun to watch.

And, of course, there are the leads. Ferrell and Reilly are both strong comic performers, able to make even the hollowest character riffs funny. (Ferrell’s “Semi-Pro” was filled with failures, but the star’s performance was not among them.) For all the problems with “Step Brothers” as an actual movie, the successes of “Step Brothers” as a series of improv scenes, nutty one-liners, and goofy costumes keep everything plowing ahead at just the right clip. We could complain about McKay’s flat visual style, or the screenplay’s lazy ramble, or all the jokes that don’t quite click. But we can’t. We’re just too damn busy giggling about that Catalina Wine Mixer.

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