Embarrassing as it may seem, we’ve all been there - laughing when the fat man splits his pants, fighting off hysterics after an old lady farts. Even the most erudite among us can’t deny that, on occasion, an expletive suits a situation far better then a calmly thought out rejoinder. Let’s face it - buried deep within all of us is a primordial appreciation of the infantile. Whether it is monkeys flinging their own poo or babies whizzing in their parents’ somehow shocked faces, the scatological and the sophomoric twinge an ancient aspect of our genetic make-up.
Perhaps that’s why, in spite of our own civilized better judgment, the newest Will Ferrell/Adam McKay effort, Step Brothers, is so funny. Not only does it take foulness to a whole new level of arrested adolescence, but it actually banks on our love of such untenable tastelessness. The storyline is deceptively simple. While at a medical convention, Dr. Robert Doback meets Nancy Huff. Since both are single, they fall into an easy relationship. Fast forward a few months, and they are getting married. This really cramps the style of their sons - both of whom are middle-aged and still living at home.
Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, Adam Scott
(Sony; US theatrical: 25 Jul 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 29 Aug 2008 (General release); 2008)
Brennan Huff is a wannabe singer who refuses to accept his Mom’s new man. He also hates that his younger brother Derek consistently undermines his station and self-esteem. Uber-slacker Dale despises his Dad’s decision. After all, this means that a lady will be part of the Doback design, and this means much less musk-scented machismo. When they are forced to live together as step-brothers, sibling rivalries instantly come crashing to the fore. The result is 80 minutes of profanity, pranks, and the kind of over the top physical shtick that hasn’t been seen since Inspector Clouseau battled his manservant Kato for dominance over their Parisian apartment.
It’s hard to deny how absolutely hilarious Step Brothers really is. You may feel guilty as Hell for laughing at it, but it definitely does earn its cheap and childish giggles. Like a lewd, later day classic comedy team, Ferrell and symbiotic performance partner John C. Reilly make a terrific post-modern mess. They play off each other in ways that signal their same wavelength wantonness, and it’s clear that neither man is a hostage to current trends in male body typing. Though clearly created as a vehicle for both, it’s equally hard to imagine two other actors who could fit as easily into Brennan and Dale’s skid-marked shorts.
Step Brothers is, in essence, cinematic stand-up, all set-ups and payoffs. There is no real narrative nuance on display, the closest we get to reality being the foulmouthed fight between the four members of this cobbled together clan. Even the inclusion of Brennan’s self-aggrandizing brother Derek (a nicely nauseating turn by Adam Scott) is just the fuel for more prurient punchlines. While actual adults Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins definitely get to flex their foul mouthed muscles, it’s purely Ferrell and Reilly’s show - and they make the most of it. As they did in the delightful Talladega Nights, the pair swaps specialties, giving each other the opportunity to shine in ways that feel unique and unusual even if they are merely the same old scatology.
Of course, films like this need nasty set pieces to manufacture return adolescent word of mouth, and Step Brothers has plenty. Ferrell is beaten up and forced to lick a petrified dog turd…by a bunch of grade schoolers. Reilly gets the hand banana treatment from Derek’s wife. Perhaps most memorably, a conflict between the ‘boys’ results in Ferrell wiping a particularly private area all over Reilly’s drum kit…and the camera never flinches. Some might call it repulsive, but McKay understands the allure of such repugnance. In a world where Jackass frequently reminds us that our greatest comedic asset is ourselves, such gonzo groin antics are to be expected. Making them anything other than nauseating takes a certain cinematic skill, something the cast here completely understands.
Ferrell is always getting ribbed for playing the same stunted adult, a manchild incapable of reacting to situations in a grown-up, non-goofy manner. Here, he stands accused, but also adds a nice layer of pathos to his overgrown teen’s social IQ. We expect this from him and he doesn’t disappoint. Reilly is the real revelation however, if only because he moves so effortlessly from serious actor (The Aviator, Magnolia) to roles of outright idiocy. Here, Dale is the more defensive element of the pairing, the midlife crisis kid that fails to understand exactly why he has to conform to a life mandated set of rules. Together, they spark the kind of interest that gets us past the lax story designs and last act upheaval.
As a director, McKay doesn’t get a lot of credit. This happens a lot in motion picture comedy. Everyone points to Judd Apatow as some sort of cinematic savior, but this fails to take into consideration how adept he is behind the camera. The same goes for the man responsible for such broad scoped efforts as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and Talladega Nights. Here, the avenues are much smaller, but this doesn’t mean McKay lowers his aim. There is an ambition here that’s hard to shake, a sense that the filmmaker, in conjunction with his leads, wants to stretch old school slapstick into something almost surreal. Step Brothers is indeed a mind boggler, the kind of laughfest experience that has you shaking your head in dumbfounded disbelief at what has you giggling.
Naturally, any viewer offended by the notion of 40 year old men acting like they’re 14, including all the summer camp crudeness that accompanies the prospect, will despise Step Brothers. To them, it will be yet another example of bodily fluids replacing wit as a means of getting already shell shocked and desensitized audiences to laugh. But that would miss many of the film’s undeniable pleasures. Sure, there is something inherently sick about seeing a balding buffoon kicking the crap out of little kids, and nothing defensible can be found in a grown man groveling like a grounded middle schooler. But Step Brothers is a pristine example of vulgarity taken to endearing extremes. Check your sense of propriety at the door and simply go with the foul flow. Save the shame for another.