“Just want you to know, I hate you and so’s my dad,” announces Dale Doback (John C. Reilly). His target, 39-year-old Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell), is lying on a bed next to him, their parents’ sudden marriage bringing all four together into one household. “Me and my dad,” Dale persists, “decided your mom was really hot and maybe we could both bang her.” Brennan, being as crass and slow-witted as his opponent, doesn’t miss a beat, his rejoinder as good as he’s gotten: “You’re a big fat curly-headed fuck.”
This fierce contretemps is, as they say, only the beginning. As conceived by Reilly, Ferrell, and director Adam McKay, the rivalry in Step Brothers has oh so many crude levels to plumb — from competitions over mom’s body, nicknames (“Dragon” vs. “Nighthawk”), and property (“Don’t touch my drum set!”) to an exhausting smackdown with bats and golf clubs on the front lawn, before a gathering of awestruck neighbors and Dale’s horrified mother. Unable to intervene, ever-pert Nancy (Mary Steenburgen) is, in fact, this spectacle’s ideal audience, the girl who can’t fathom the anti-nuances of masculine ritual. Watching her man-children clobber each other to sweaty, gasping pulps, she’s reduced to abject impropriety: “What the fucking fuck!?”
Apparently the only possible punchline for this going-nowhere-slowly scene, Nancy’s exclamation also makes clear the fundamental logic of Step Brothers. Demonstrating (and occasionally exaggerating) the lewd, brutal routines that make up the lengthy, much celebrated transition from boy to man in U.S. consumer culture, the movie has plenty of ground to cover. The fact that it’s ground often traversed in Ferrell’s movies and more recently, in co-producer Judd Apatow’s movies, doesn’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm or inanity. Rather, the repetition seems to up the ante: how much more can be said, showed, or countenanced? How low can it go?
Ferrell has, of course, been at this for a decade at least, on SNL as well as in movies showcasing his preternatural gift for excess. Whether running naked through the streets in Old School or pumping minor iron in Anchorman, he knows how to put his flabby white never-formed body forward, to hurl himself into parts that would embarrass actors with less fortitude. His fearless childishness and scattershot physicality are not about precision (though he has shown that as well, in, for instance, Elf and Stranger Than Fiction), but instead, audacity. He’s a riotous 11-year-old, trapped inside a galumphy body and given away by his doughy face.
That Ferrell found a kind of perfect mirror-match in Reilly was, in Talladega Nights, not a terrible thing. Taking boys-and-cars and, especially, the commercial immoderation of NASCAR, as their backdrop, they came up with a few more ways simultaneously to ridicule and celebrate masculinity. Taking a next step, the new movie finds an even more protracted childishness in Brennan and Dale, still fed and clothed by their parents, unwilling to support themselves. Briefly, the film notes that Nancy and new husband Robert (Richard Jenkins) are anxious for their boys to movie out so they can move on: they want to retire and spend long months on Robert’s beautiful boat (you can guess where this emblem of successful masculinity will end up). But the parents are primarily used to augment the sons’ bad behaviors, as their eyes go wide and their jaws drop, unable to make sense of such extreme displays of goony selfishness and vulgarity.
The movie offers brief explanations for the boys’ social retardation, including a flashback to Brennan’s youthful performance in Pirates of Penzance, his rosy-cheeked visage falling as his bully of a younger brother, Derek (Adam Scott), taunts him from offstage: “Brennan has a mangina!” As Brennan’s potential as a singer is stymied (he repeats the ur-praise heaped on him, once, that his is “the voice of a generation”), his self-confidence and capacity as a man are also jammed. (Dale is allotted his own stunted-growth imagery, as he hides out in his room, grumbling in his Chewbacca mask.)
Derek’s abusiveness serves multiple purposes, not only impeding Brennan’s
“artistic” development but also inspiring the stepbrothers’ bonding. At first, mom and dad think this is fine, as at last the boys will spend constructive time together and maybe even find paying jobs outside the home. But no. As Dale and Brennan discover their shared interests and so become “best friends,” life in the Doback home turns even more chaotic.
One sign of this turn is Robert’s increasingly visible rage. As his face goes red and veins bulge, dad is suddenly the more daunting example of juvenile masculinity, and Nancy’s efforts to smooth over the arguments among her brood. This leaves her in the position most often granted to girls in the Ferrell universe, somewhere between nurturing and alluring. As she is perpetually flabbergasted by the one-upping craziness of her boy-men, Nancy also has some support in her supporting role: Brennan’s therapist (Andrea Savage) and Dale’s married lover (Kathryn Hahn).
While they surely ensure that the boys, for all their homoerotic/homophobic rites, are emphatically heterosexual, the women also provide the film’s necessary internal audience. Appalled by manifestations of male insecurities and aggressions, they embody those social, domesticating judgments that make such manifestations seem so wild and crazy. That is, the boys are most plainly appalling when the girls are appalled. Such circular logic makes bother the Ferrell and the Apatow movies go. The formula is by now too familiar to be outrageous. And if it leaves Nancy and other girls with little to do or say that is not about the boys, well, that would be the point.