Before I get started, let me just preface this review by saying that Step-Brothers is a truly stupid movie, full of crude, scatological humor and moments where you find yourself cringing and hoping no one in the theatre recognizes you.
And yet . . . I laughed. I laughed a lot. There are a lot of moments in Step-Brothers that don’t work on any level, but when the movie gets something right, it’s pretty damn funny.
In Step-Brothers, Will Farrell brings us his manchildy-est manchild ever, playing 39-year-Brennan, a frequently out of work wannabe singer who still lives with his sweet, enabling mom Nancy, played by Mary Steenburgen. (Is Mary Steenburgen really old enough to be Will Farrell’s mother?? According to imdb.com, she could be if it was a teenaged pregnancy. What can I say – Babies having babies, yo!) Brennan’s life is thrown into turmoil when Nancy goes to a medical conference and meets Robert, played by the underrated Richard Jenkins. Nancy and Robert seem to instantly fall in love, particularly when Robert reveals that he has a 40-year-old son named Dale who still lives at home. John C. Reilly’s Dale is rude, selfish, dumb, and yet quite lovable. Dale and Brennan hate each other at first sight and the first part of the movie is full of their juvenile resentment and jealousy. Their frequent battles and increasingly childish and destructive antics prompt Robert and Nancy to issue an ultimatum – the boys have one month to find a job and move out. Will Brennan and Dale grow up and embrace adulthood? Or will they rebel against this parental tyranny and find friendship in their common ground? What do you think?
Step-Brothers works in theory and does allow Farrell to do what he does best, playing that clue-free manchild who straddles the line between innocence and ignorance. Bringing Reilly along for the ride only adds to the mayhem. Reilly, like Farrell, plunges into his character with a childlike glee. There’s a certain sparkle in his eye when he says some of his more crude dialogue. (There’s a particularly hilarious yet offensive scene where Dale informs Brennan that his dad only married Nancy so that the two of them could share her – only he states it a lot more explicitly than that). The movie is full of tiny moments like that which almost hurt they are so funny.
The problem with Step-Brothers, though, is that there are also a lot of moments that don’t work. The movie is too willing to go the toilet route, mining supposed humor from licking white dog poop and long, smelly farts. It undermines the moments of real, genuine wit that the movie employs more skillfully.
The characters that surround Dale and Brennan, too, often border on the intolerable, especially Adam Cook as Brennan’s cocky younger brother and Rob Riggle as his toady co-worker. These two play broad caricatures that undermine the hints of humanity that Farrell and O’Reilly bring to their characters. By the end of the movie, I seriously wanted someone to just stab Rob Riggle’s character and put me out of my misery.
There are also those moments that leave you scratching your head in bewilderment. How did two intelligent, successful people like Robert and Nancy allow this situation with their sons to go on as long as it has? Okay, Nancy is clearly a coddling enabler, but surely Robert would have snapped long before this. How could Brennan’s younger brother beat him at the talent show in high school by lip syncing to “Ice Ice Baby” if Brennan is 39? I was a sophomore in college when that song came out, and I am a few years younger than 39. Something like that is just sloppy script work, and I would expect better from Farrell and his co-writer (and director) Adam McKay.
Overall, Step-Brothers is in no way a great film, but its moments of inspired humor make it worth a viewing. Just wear your baseball cap and shades so no one will see you laughing at things you’d be ashamed to admit you found funny.