Embarrassing as it may seem, we’ve all been there – laughing when the fat man splits his pants, fighting off hysterics when an old lady farts. Even the most erudite among us can’t deny that, on occasion, an expletive suits a situation far better than a calmly thought-out rejoinder. Let’s face it: buried deep within is a primordial appreciation of the infantile; whether it is monkeys flinging their poo or babies whizzing in their parents’ faces, the scatological and the sophomoric twinge an ancient aspect of our genetic make-up.
Perhaps that’s why, despite our 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 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 cramps the style of their sons – both of whom are middle-aged and still living at home.
Brennan Huff (Will Ferrel) is a wannabe singer who refuses to accept his Mom’s new man. He also hates that his younger brother Derek (Adam Scott) consistently undermines his station and self-esteem. Uber-slacker Dale (John C. Riley) 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 stepbrothers, 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 is. You may feel guilty as hell for laughing at it, but it earns its cheap and childish giggles. Like a lewd, later-day classic comedy team, Ferrell and symbiotic performance partner 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 Step Brothers is 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 foul-mouthed 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 the fuel for more prurient punchlines. While actual adults Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins 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 McKay’s Talladega Nights (2006), the pair swaps specialties, allowing each other to shine in ways unique and unusual, even if 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. Brennan is beaten up and forced to lick a petrified dog turd…by a bunch of grade schoolers. Dale gets the hand banana treatment from Derek’s wife. Perhaps most memorably, a conflict between the ‘boys’ results in Brennan wiping a particularly private area all over Dale’s drum kit…and the camera never flinches. Some might call Step Brothers 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, his 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 much credit for his films. 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 McKay is behind the camera. The same goes for the man responsible for such broad-scoped efforts as 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and the aformentioned Talladega Nights.
In Step Brothers, the comedic avenues are much narrower, 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 laugh fest 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 accompanying 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 desensitized audiences to laugh. But that approach would overlook many of Step Brothers‘ 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.