Obscenely Funny

Men will be boys: Will Ferrell, left, and John C. Reilly star as serious slackers in the entertaining new comedy.
Men will be boys: Will Ferrell, left, and John C. Reilly star as serious slackers in the entertaining new comedy. (By Gemma La Mana -- Columbia Pictures)
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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 25, 2008

Thank god that when he became a man, Will Ferrell never put away childish things. His "Step Brothers" is so childish it seems to arrive in diapers, and that's not bad, it's good.

It's a kind of progression of regressions: It embraces and amplifies the immaturity that lies at the center of so much masculine pathology, the fragility, fear and awkwardness -- which it blows out exponentially, with such force that a few logical disconnects that might hamstring a lesser engine sail on by. Does that make any sense? No, but neither does the movie.

As "Step Brothers" has it, Brennan Huff (Ferrell) and Dale Doback (John C. Reilly) are capital-L losers who live with their single parent or rather sponge pathetically off that poor, accomplished progenitor. Brennan, younger son of accomplished businesswoman Nancy Huff (Mary Steenburgen), and Dale, only son of Dr. Robert Doback (the great Richard Jenkins), can't be considered failures to launch because they never made it to the launch pad. They can hardly get out of bed, and when they do it's only to make a beeline to the couch in front of the TV with a stop in the kitchen for Ho Hos, cereal, canned ravioli and then on to a hard day watching '70s situation comedy on cable. As a treat, Dad sometimes leaves pizza money, and for a social life there's a run of 1975-1989 Hustlers hidden in the treehouse. I have to say: Sounds pretty good to me!

Alas, at a medical conference, Nancy and Robert meet, fall in love and a few weeks later get married. Thus Dale and Brennan meet and, being exactly alike, immediately hate each other, a situation exacerbated when housing exigencies (actually unconvincing plot exigencies) make it necessary for them to share a room. There, their infantile worldview and primitive's commitment to things they haven't learned make them blood enemies in a battle fought by 3-year-olds in the hairy, disgusting bodies of 40-year-olds.

Hmm, I didn't see Noel Coward's name anywhere on the screen credits, so this isn't a battle of sophisticated zingers so much as unsophisticated lungers. With their childish body language, their commitment to the meaningless ("Don't you dare touch my drums!"), their bravado masking absolute physical terror of actual force, and their micro-attention span, it's pretty much a war of the newts. And its cessation arrives only when a larger enemy approaches -- Brennan's only brother, the magnificently smarmy Derek (played by magnificently smarmy Adam Scott), shows up.

Derek is considered an actual grown-up because he has a wife and kids and drives a Range Rover and makes $550,000 a year, but he's really another child, a pure bully whose contempt for his no more underdeveloped brother and new stepbrother marks him as an enemy. He likes to sneer, boast, pop noses and, worst of all, roughhouse, all to demonstrate his superiority.

Mostly the movie just drifts through its situation, these two families trying to cohere into one with spectacularly dysfunctional results. Toward the end, and not gracefully, it acquires a plot and manages to find a climax at some sort of weirdly conceived helicopter rental/wine tasting (yeah, another one of those) that either (a) didn't make any sense or (b) I couldn't figure out. You may not notice, but you'll notice that the actual climax -- Ferrell saves the day with an aria -- doesn't really sum anything up or express much.

Of course Ferrell has one of the most liberated screen presences in history; he will literally do anything for a laugh and has no concept of dignity or grace. A large part of the fun is watching the way he simply lets go and lets his hideously flaccid, flubby bod fling this way and that with utter abandon, or lets his 40-year-old face jellify into a mask of sheer terror at the prospect (and the destiny) of being humiliated by a mob of 12-year-olds; or become devilish because he actually snuck a touch at Dale's drums.

For his part, Reilly lets it go, too, and his pronunciation of the word "Dad," full of over-expressed respect and concomitant self-loathing, is an eternally funny but subtly touching stroke. In fact, one of the funniest things about "Step Brothers" is its undertow of melancholy. These two are hopelessly messed up and completely unable to compete -- or even survive -- in a real world.

The movie is produced by current comedy flavor of the month Judd Apatow, and it displays some of his comedy trademarks. Chief among these is a reliance on profanity from unusual sources for laughs, and some viewers may be shocked at the constant appearance of obscene language, sometimes from the strangest and most unexpected direction.

As well, there's an insistence on forcing some of the comedy into the harsher realms of sexuality. Derek's wife, Denise (Andrea Savage), is so put upon by her husband's macho stylings that she discovers an insatiable lust for the porcine and somewhat baffled Dale, even to the point of spelling out obscene invitations with her green beans at the dinner table.

The director of the madness is Ferrell's old "Saturday Night Live" buddy Adam McKay, who also guided "Talladega Nights" and "Anchorman" to box office loot. In that respect, the movie seems to represent an entwining of Hollywood comedy bloodlines, the physical shtick of the old "SNL" approach, based on Ferrell's anything-goes body language, and the R-rated profanity and sex-driven patter of the Aptatow Weltanschauung. Whatever, it works in spades.

Step Brothers (93 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for crude and sexual content, and pervasive profanity.

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