As a Judd Apatow production, Adam McKay’s Step Brothers is easy to pigeonhole as yet another story of prolonged adolescence and extremely late coming-of-age. Will Ferrell, no stranger to either concept, and John C. Reilly play Brennan and Dale, respectively, 40-year-olds living at home who find their lives of television, unemployment, and $20 on the counter for pizza disrupted when Brennan’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) marries Dale’s dad (Richard Jenkins) — the overgrown boys are forced to consider growing up. This superficial similarity to more heartfelt Apatow-directed pictures like Knocked Up or The 40-Year-Old Virgin may be a reason behind some of the dismissive reviews Step Brothers received upon its theatrical release in summer 2008.
Another possible reason: Step Brothers is kind of unpleasant. But therein lies its peculiar genius. Ferrell and Reilly are hardly the arrested adolescents typically played by Seth Rogen or Jason Segel; their behavior is mostly limited to the province of extremely foulmouthed ten-year-olds. As such, they’re far more deranged than Seth Rogen shirking responsibility and living off of settlement money in Knocked Up. They’re hostile, irritable, and unemployable; hilarious but also unsettling.
The flagrant dysfunction might grow stale and, indeed, knock off those other Apatow productions if not for the comic invention of Ferrell and McKay, who cowrote the script as they did on Anchorman and Talladega Nights. McKay is generally undervalued as a director — he knows how to arrange, cut, and corral the litany of absurdity that comes with these Ferrell comedies — and when it comes time to force Brennan and Dale out of their youth, he doesn’t hold back.
Rather than a heartening montage of increasing maturity, McKay paints the “grown-up” world as nearly as petty, meaningless, and sad as the brothers’ initial antics. This point is made most clearly by Brennan’s brother Derek (Adam Scott), a nasty piece of macho suburban consumption who runs the most successful corporate helicopter rental firm on the “western seaboard”. Suddenly Ferrell is the sober-minded straight man in scenes that lampoon corporate culture with offhand accuracy.
At those moments, the movie almost resembles a parody of the Apatow formula, though it doesn’t exactly endorse arrested pre-pubescence, either, making clear via Brennan’s therapist that the boys are deeply troubled. McKay is less interested in a particular point of view than the anarchy churning below Ferrell and Reilly’s exteriors, and somehow this omni-directional irreverence comes across as merrily unfettered, rather than sour.
If there is a limitation to this movie, it’s that Brennan and Dale are hardly more than duplicates; even Beavis and Butthead have faint but perceptible differences in personality. The movie makes their commonalities (love of velociraptors, kung fu, and masturbation, among others) part of the joke, but Brennan and Dale are still a little wearying to watch, less inspired creations than, say, Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton Jr. The satiric material in the final twenty minutes is so funny that it could’ve come a little sooner, or lasted a little longer.
The “unrated” version of Step Brothers available on DVD obliges a little, adding ten extra minutes without raising the bawdiness quotient much — not unexpected as the theatrical cut is already rated R. As with McKay’s other pictures, the extra time showcases more elaborate versions of scenes and gags trimmed down to a sensible length for paying audiences. The new material — much of which consists of longer dinner-table scenes — isn’t essential, but it provides further evidence of the comedic fruitfulness of this collaboration.
Further excursions are catalogued outside the movie in the single disc’s deleted scenes and “line-o-rama” sections, including a brilliant bit at Derek’s office featuring Daily Show and SNL alum Rob Riggle having a heart attack while delivering pumped-up admonishments to Ferrell (still more variations and extensions are promised on a second disc, unseen by me). The mirth extends to a commentary track from Ferrell, Reilly, and McKay; those looking for a detailed analysis of the team’s comedic process will instead find an attempt at a musical commentary aided by the film’s composer, Jon Brion, as well as drop-in from NBA star Baron Davis, who turns up for half an hour or so to talk basketball (and occasionally steer the conversation back toward filmmaking).
In between the improvised songs, the boys do touch upon the movie’s origins and process: McKay was eager to shoot something less complex than the action-heavy Talladega Nights, and wound up with an 180-page screenplay draft and an improv-saturated shoot that turned editing into a challenge. It’s slightly frustrating not to hear more details from McKay, but he and his co-conspirators sound incapable of dwelling on serious self-analysis. Of course, it takes serious, actual skill to make a comedy this funny and strange; Ferrell, Reilly, and McKay keep their adulthood concealed in plain sight.