'Step Brothers' is crude, rude -- and funny
A clarification is in order. Despite the movie's R rating, the trailers for "Step Brothers" make it look like fun for more or less the entire family, what with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly pouting and sissy-fighting and building a bunk bed that collapses in on itself like an end-stage dark star.
What the ads don't show you is Reilly crowing about his "chest pubes" and "bush 'fro," f-bombs detonated every five seconds, and - la piece de anatomical resistance - Ferrell rubbing his testicles all over Reilly's prized drum kit. I'm assuming - actually I'm praying - that stunt testicles were involved, but still. Take the kids at your peril.
Mismarketing aside, "Step Brothers" is crudely funny, which means that sometimes it's crudely hilarious and more often it's just crude. The movie, directed by Ferrell's "Funny or Die" web partner Adam McKay and written by him with the stars, has one joke that it beats into the ground: 40-year-old men acting like petulant 9-year-olds. Luckily, Ferrell and Reilly were born with no shame or sense of personal dignity, and they give good tantrum. Remember the old cartoon character Baby Huey, a gigantic infant duck in a diaper? Now picture two of him.
The movie pushes the notion of the "boomerang generation" - kids who graduate, return home, and never, ever leave - until it breaks into slaphappy pieces. Ferrell plays Brennan Huff, a flabby mama's boy; Reilly is his spiritual twin, Dale Doback. Brennan's mom, Nancy (Mary Steenburgen - nice to see her back, but what's with the spray-on tan?), meets Dale's dad, Robert (Richard Jenkins, gleefully working the opposite side of the street from his subtle turn in "The Visitor"), and after bonding over their mutual love of Rob Reiner movies, the two professionals are smitten with late-life lust. Marriage ensues and the "kids" are forced to share a bedroom.
In no universe can I imagine Will Ferrell ever issuing from Steenburgen, but Jenkins and Reilly do make a plausible, craggy-faced father and son. The comedy comes from the patient slow burn of the parents as they try to ignore the explosive belligerence of the boys, which escalates early into a marvelously unhinged front-yard free-for-all. "Today I saw my own son use a bicycle as a weapon," murmurs Nancy in shock and awe.
Eventually the filmmakers have to come up with a plot of some sort, which leads to the appearance of Brennan's successful younger brother Derek (Adam Scott), still a vengeful little sneak under the power suit. Not that you go to a movie like "Step Brothers" for its believability factor, but when Derek's repressed wife (Kathryn Hahn) goes aggressively gaga for Dale, the movie starts sliding off the rails. The "Funny or Die" mantra of quick-hit comedy threatens to die on the vine when extended to feature length.
For every gross-out laugh that works, then, there's one (or three) that just lie there. The best bits rise out of the characters' belief that they're entitled to sit on the couch all day and scratch their crotches while dreaming footie-pajama dreams of fame. Ferrell paints the walls with his usual cross-eyed egotism while Reilly works the corners and gets the bigger guffaws. Occasionally "Step Brothers" delivers with such random drive-by surrealism that you have to laugh, such as the scenes in which Dale and Brennan sleepwalk in tandem, muttering non sequiturs and breaking the crockery.
Actually, the funniest person here just might be Rob Riggle as Derek's corporate second-in-command, a blockheaded bully who yells cryptic team-spirit phonemes with desperate urgency. Elsewhere, "Step Brothers" is content to push the giggles that come from shock. It's an "Oh, no, they didn't" comedy and proud of it: A film made by little boys, starring little boys, and aimed at a culture of little boys of all ages and genders. As such, it will prosper.