Though its comedy is nearly as undisciplined and juvenile as its heroes, Step Brothers generates a fair number of laughs. Surprises? Not so much. But laughs, I had a few. There's only so far wrong Judd Apatow can go by hiring writer-director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) to oversee Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly as middle-aged step-brothers thrust together when each's parent-housemate marries the other's. But there's also a limit Apatow's fast approaching for how many times he can mine the same man-child territory and still expect gleeful acquiesence from an audience.
Ferrell plays 39-year-old Brennan Huff, who can't hold a job, even at PetSmart ("I wasn't fired, I was laid off!"), and lives with his mother, a successful journalist named Nancy (Mary Steenburgen). Reilly's Dale Doback, meanwhile, enjoys life with father, a cochlear-implant doctor named Robert (Richard Jenkins of The Visitor). When Robert and Nancy make eye contact during one of his lectures, it's love at first sight, followed swiftly by a second-chance marriage that spells disruption of their sons' overly comfortable lives. It's one of the film's better jokes that co-dependency brings these characters together. Robert and Nancy seem drawn together by their unique brand of loneliness mixed with parental frustration, while the step-brothers, after much jealous bickering, turn out to be soulmates.
The film's funniest moments come early, when the children are forced to live together and engage in near-feral competition. The initial family dinner gets laughs from subtle behavioral cues, Ferrell and Reilly perfectly capturing the immaturity and insecurity of confused and impotent adolescence (check out Reilly's loud sigh of disapproval). As Dale gives Brennan a passive-aggressive tour of the house, like a child (barely) forced to play nice, territory is marked, particularly Dale's sacred drum set. On their first night as roommates, in adjacent beds, they continue their psychological warfare in seething whispers.
There's humor, too, in the boys' discovery of something that we immediately recognize: that they're two peas in a pod. They're both couch potatoes dedicated to Shark Week and Book of Love, both roughhousers, both under-inspired dreamers who want to blow people's minds with music; perhaps together, they can achieve all that stuff of which their parents kept insisting they were capable. The team of McKay, Ferrell, and Reilly are at their best with poker-faced understatement and just-so randomness, sometimes at the same time, as when the step-brothers go on Frankensteinian sleepwalking jags or when they face off on the lawn of their now-shared home:
Dale: You have to call me Dragon.
Brennan: You have to call me Nighthawk.
But it's the randomness that also tends to spin out of control, and Step Brothers takes the opportunity of the boys' detente to become Dumb and Dumber. It goes without saying that Step Brothers earns its R with profanity and outrageous bodily jokes. But the more outlandish the joke (a.k.a. little kids pick fights with the men), the less purchase McKay finds, as our investment in the film's reality checks out.
The tone also shifts noticeably with the appearance of Brennan's ultra-successful brother Derek (Adam Scott). Swiftly becoming a common enemy of the two losers who can't hope to match his accomplishments, Derek tips the film's unlikely comic exaggeration into cartoonishness, from which the film never returns. Derek is introduced while conducting his wife, son and daughter in a cappella car singalong of Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine," and the film confirms he's a dick when he later says he's in a hurry to get home for Dane Cook on Pay-Per-View (unfortunately, we're later asked to like a guy who clearly represents the Hollywood dicks surrounding the vengeful filmmakers).
More damaging than this more-or-less necessary foil to the step-brothers is the character of Derek's wife, Alice (Kathryn Hahn). Of late, the guy-centric Apatow gang has seemed increasingly tin-eared when it comes to female characters, with women who come off as either misogynist or idealized fantasies (I'm thinking especially of the producer's wife, Leslie Mann, playing comically slutty in Drillbit Taylor). Screenwriters Ferrell and McKay (sharing story credit with Reilly) position Alice as a hostage in her marriage. Deranged with despair, Alice throws herself at Dale with scarily intense sexual overtures, as well as a freakishly masculine manner at odds with her inability to exit her loveless union. There's some humor in Reilly's sexual shock, but the plot thread is mostly unconvincing and offputting. In the fantasy idealization category is the straight-laced professional woman (Andrea Savage) who simply can't resist Ferrell's Brawny-man pheromones.
The focus, of course, is on the ol' Peter Pan Syndrome, which is affectionately mocked, and ultimately endorsed. Yes, the step-brothers learn to act their age, at a work-related event dubbed the "Catalina Wine Mixer" (humorously proposed as the ultimate symbol of maturity). But they're also ongoingly enabled and encouraged to act like kids—y'know, on the weekends. It's a happy ending apt for Moviedom, where richly successful overgrown adolescents have always been prized, and many for good reason.