You know you're in trouble when the George W. Bush quote you open your movie with ("Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream") gets the evening's biggest laugh.
It's no stretch to call Adam McKay's Step Brothers the year's stupidest film. Part of me feels bad labeling it as such, but then I remember that no movie boasting scenes of a grown man licking dog feces really wants to be taken seriously on any level.
And yet, I'd be lying if I told you Brothers didn't make me laugh. Freed from the shackles of having to follow an actual script -- McKay receives a "story" credit alongside co-stars Will Ferrell
and John C. Reilly
, which is kind of a joke in and of itself -- the cast can improvise with reckless abandon. But you have to tolerate a fair share of imbecilic drivel before uncovering a few choice lines, as when Reilly tells Ferrell his singing voice is "like a combination of Fergie and Jesus." Article continues below
Brothers marks McKay's third feature-length collaboration with Ferrell, and the two have found a formula they're comfortable with. They establish the comedian as a thin-skinned, overgrown adolescent -- an egotistical anchorman, or a delusional NASCAR driver -- then rattle his cage by introducing stiff competition.
Step Brothers establishes the rules of its game before you're even settled in your seat. Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Nancy (Mary Steenburgen
) meet while attending a medical convention and bond over the fact that they both have 40-year-old boys who haven't left the nest. Deeply in love following a whirlwind weekend, the two get married -- forcing disgruntled Brennan (Ferrell) and Dale (Reilly) to live under the same roof.
So, who are these guys? Well, Brennan's a sensitive songbird whose dream of performing was crushed at an early age by younger brother Derek (Adam Scott
, hilarious in the role that usually goes to Will Arnett
). And Dale's a bully, the petulant aggressor whose tipping point appears whenever anyone touches his drum set. The fact that Brennan eventually touches Dale's kit in a fit of rage comes as no surprise. What he uses to handle the drums I'll leave for you to discover.
An ancient advertising campaign for the New York lottery used to tout, "All you need is a dollar and a dream." Reduced to fit the Ferrell box office lottery, all you need is a few studio dollars and a wafer-thin premise. The core of Step Brothers sounds more like a pitch you'd bring to a studio meeting, not a finished film. And if you are hoping this goes any deeper than the one-line summary, you're reading about the wrong film.
After McKay and his crew thoroughly exhaust all originality in the setup, which occurs roughly 10 minutes in, Step Brothers collapses into a haze of brutal slapstick, degrading insults, and ghastly bodily-fluid jokes. Cheap shots for a cheap film. Brothers looks like it was shot in McKay's backyard, with the cast reaching into their own closets and filling backgrounds with vintage props bought at a neighborhood flea market.
I'm always amazed when esteemed actors such as Kathy Bates
, Robert Duvall
, or Ving Rhames
agree to play hillbillies, bullies, and closeted homosexuals in Ferrell or Adam Sandler
vehicles. What scripts did Steenburgen reject so she'd have the opportunity to blurt "What the (bleep)ing (bleep)" in this film? And if Jenkins wonders why the Academy overlooks his intricate performance in Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor come Oscar season, he need only pop Brothers into the nearest DVD player and skip to the scene where he bends Ferrell over and spanks his behind.
As much as I want to dismiss this movie outright, I can't. Blind squirrels like Ferrell and Reilly do find an occasional nut (sadly, I'm being literal). And the movie closes on a high note, showing the buffoonish leads taking out an army of school-age bullies like Bruce Lee mowing down opponents in Enter the Dragon.
"I wish we had these when we were 12," Brennan says to Dale in one scene, referring to a pair of night vision goggles the siblings wear around the house.
"Why? We have them when we're 40," Dale replies.
The character is talking about the expensive toys. But Reilly's talking about his and Ferrell's man-child career trajectories, which show no signs of stopping.