Dennis Miller once opined that comedy is not something that one filters through one’s intellectual prism before reacting. You either laugh or you don’t laugh, there’s no cerebral debate involved. It is a truism that will undoubtedly be tested wit the new Will Farrell/John C. Reilly comedy Step Brothers.
Brennan (Farrell) is a 40-year old who never moved out of his mother Nancy’s (Mary Steenburgen) home. Used to being the sole focus of her attention, he becomes upset when she meets and marries Robert (Richard Jenkins), whose son Dale (Reilly) also lives at home. When Nancy and Robert get married, Brennan and Dale find themselves suddenly having to share a bedroom when Nancy and Brennan move in to Robert’s home. Jealous of their parents’ affection for each other, the two are immediately at odds. But the only thing worse than when they fight is they become friends, as their behavior only amplifying each other’s in some sort of crazed feedback loop. Once they discover a common enemy, Brennan’s overly successful younger brother Derek (Adam Scott), the two quickly bond and are inseparable. The pair cause enough havoc that Robert finally decrees that the two have a month to find jobs and a new place to live or else he will throw them out of the house.
In a way, Step Brothers is a guy’s movie. Divorced from any need to be responsible, Brennan and Dale do nothing all day but amuse themselves by watching tv, playing video games and bang on their drum sets. It celebrates that boundless energy children often have for projects – like when Brennan and Dale try to turn their beds into bunk beds – where enthusiasm carries them further than skill and knowledge would.
Step Brothers is also a crude movie, with Farrell and Reilly spewing nearly non-stop profanities. While some might take offense to this, it is perfectly in keeping with their emotionally arrested characters to be doing so. Stuck at the maturity level of a young teenager, the two are still in the phase where teens routinely test their boundaries, attempting to shock their parents with “forbidden words.” The nearly blasé way Brennan and Dale’s parents react to this, only infuriates them, unleashing a new stream of even stronger, and comically juxtaposed, profanity.
Like most of their comedy work before this, Farrell and Reilly through themselves into their roles with energy and gusto. There is an almost scary amount of commitment on display here, but this is a comedy concept that can’t be done in half-measures. Still, not every scene scores. A bit about sleepwalking goes on for far too long and has no good payoff and the reveal of a blind neighbor seems like a setup for a joke that never comes.
I suppose one could view this film as a satire on over permissive parenting and the self-entitled adults it ultimately results in. I don’t think that McKay and Farrell had such high intentions though, when they sat down to write the screenplay. I think the two were looking for something to build a movie around, saw a societal trend that offered much comic possibility and then exaggerated it to a ridiculous end. Sure the ending of the film does make a case for balancing maturity and the need to have fun, but it is an ending that is a given in this type of story and no deep sociological statement need be read into it. The film may lack much of the heart of other films produced by Judd Apatow like The 40-Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up, but heaven help me, I still laughed. Your mileage may vary.