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Will Ferrell’s Step Brothers is relatively depressing

by Glen Baity

I’ve reviewed a few Will Ferrell comedies in my time writing this column. Regardless of my personal opinion about the quality of each, the common theme I always come back to seems to be: Either you think the guy’s funny or you don’t. For the record, I like Will Ferrell. But even I found his newest film, Step Brothers, frequently unpleasant. The arrested-development comedy stars the erstwhile Ricky Bobby and his comic soul mate, John C. Reilly, as Brennan and Dale, the adult children of recently-married parents Nancy and Robert (Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins). Both Dale and Brennan are middle-aged, sporadically employed, and have never left home. After a whirlwind romance, their parents shake things up by moving in together and bringing their respective leeches along for the ride. Brennan is forced to sleep in Dale’s room, and an epic rivalry is forged. Conceived by Ferrell, Reilly and Adam McKay, who also directs, the film revisits a favorite motif of this crew, who also gave us Talladega Nights and Anchorman. These guys love grown men who act like little children, but Step Brothers takes it to a whole new level. Unlike the newsroom boy’s club in Anchorman, Dale and Brennan don’t merely exhibit childish tendencies. They are children in virtually any meaningful sense of the word. Each is wholly dependent on his enabler of a parent for monetary and emotional support; each is petulant, demanding and fiercely territorial; that they’re both middle-aged is just a grotesque detail. It’s also the detail the film relies on for comedy. Parts of Step Brothers are funny, but they’re all funny for the same reason: because these are adults who still act as though they’re eight years old. Recast these roles with actual adolescents and the film would be instantly transformed into a family dramedy, albeit a shallow one that no one would want to watch. Your enjoyment will therefore be directly proportional to the length of time you find the premise funny. For me, it started to get tiresome around the time the boys become friends. In one scene — after they’ve discovered that they both love velociraptors and Steven Segal movies — they pester their parents to allow them to bunk their beds because “we’ll have so much more room to do activities.” It’s a moment that stretches the already-expanded boundaries of weirdness one must to allow to enjoy a Will Ferrell movie. The film relishes every detail of its characters’ creepy, sad lives, and those characters bear absolutely no resemblance to anyone you have ever met or are likely to meet. Say what you want about Ferrell and Reilly, but each commits to his role totally. The two work so well together they seem like they’re sharing a brain (a small one, but still), and Jenkins and Steenburgen each deliver adequate amounts of exasperation and tried patience. The cast works hard for what laughs there are, and to be sure, there are some quotable bits and pieces. Just not enough to keep Step Brothers afloat. Ferrell and McKay recently helped co found the excellent www.funnyordie.com, and scored a minor viral hit with their short, “The Landlord”. Step Brothers seems like an outsized idea for a video on that site, and I think it would’ve worked marvelously as a five-minute clip, or even a series of them. But these characters simply can’t sustain an entire film comedy, and when the boys inevitably get kicked out and have to grow up, Step Brothers starts to really sag. Though it has its moments, this is one Ferrell should have left in his parents’ basement.

To comment on this story, send your e mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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