Detractors who see Step Brothers as the herald of a now fully and irrevocably declined culture may take comfort from the traditional-values-intensive leadership of George W. Bush, whom it quotes by way of introduction: “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”
Writer-director Adam McKay, also of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, will take it from there, with essential help from producer Judd Apatow and Talladega‘s co-stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, who with McKay conceived this story and are its stars, too.
There’s no sub-title for Step Brothers, but it doesn’t need one. We have seen already the totally righteous poster, a complete work unto itself. There they are, in the familiar canned Americana of the family photo-op, posed in complementary argyle sweater vests over plain button-down Oxfords, with their just-slightly doughy mugs, their just-barely Brilloish hair, and those guileless, glazed, goofball looks in their eyes. So simple, so delightful. It’s iconic in an almost Chaplinesque way, evoking instant mirth everywhere in the world at once.
No, this isn’t to say that we have a pair of Charlie Chaplins on our hands. But we do have, pretty much, the Pacino and De Niro of retarded-adolescent comedy. Say what you will about the bit itself, these guys are completely committed.
The story? Sparks fly for Dr. Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins) and Nancy Huff (Mary Steenburgen) when they discover that they each have a useless, spoiled son who’s been living at home for about 40 years. Hers is Brennan (Ferrell); his, Dale (Reilly). They all move in together. Well, you can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your family. Wait, is that how it goes?
While co-habitating, the almost-siblings discover things about each other and themselves. They also have a common foe in Brennan’s younger brother Derek (Adam Scott), who sells houses and helicopters and is a pompous, overachieving prick — a most impressive young lad in the doctor’s estimation, but actually, in his way, more entitled (and entitled to an ass-kicking) than the two step brothers combined. It’s through him, in fact, that the movie declares itself more than just a crass celebration of childish unseriousness: Its most acidly funny moments come from sharp hostility toward Derek and his kind, which means real empathy for Brennan and Dale and theirs. First the man-boys stage elaborate and fearless burlesques to frighten off prospective buyers of their house, and to freak Derek out, then they make a funny go of learning his corporo-frat-bro lingo.
Without ever over-Hallmarking it, Step Brothers finds room within its ridiculous, unjustified plot for a prudent comment on what we think being grown up means today, and for a triumph of incorruptible sincerity over the ultimately more stunting meanness and egotism. Yes, it helps having Jenkins and Steenburgen to class it up. But it also helps having Ferrell and Reilly being hilarious.
Sometimes the jokes stall, but there’s barely any dead air in the picture. These people are pros. They keep moving. And thus have they nearly perfected the low but worthy art of the movie that looks so stupid you can’t wait to see it.