Remember way back three years ago, when Will Ferrell popped up in Wedding Crashers as a guy who still lived with his mom an insisted on crashing weddings and funerals for kicks? And remember how utterly embarrassing that scene (let alone that whole movie) was? Well, that character and that mentality are alive and well in Ferrell's latest movie, Step Brothers. That's not to say that this movie is about the same character, because it's not. But in spirit, at least, the idiot-manchild that became his cash cow is in full effect here.
Nancy Huff (Mary Steenburgen) and Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins) get married and move in together, and their respective children, Brennan (Will Ferrell) and Dale (John C. Reilly) are forced to live in the same house. The two forty-somethings start out hating each other's guts, only to become best friends after a couple days. That's seriously all the plot that Ferrell, director Adam McKay, and producer Judd Apatow can come up with. Oh, sure, there's a subplot about Nancy's younger son (Adam Scott) rubbing his overachievements in Brennan's face while his wife (Kathryn Hahn) tries desperately to get it on with Dale, and he and Brennan try and fail miserably to grow up, but that's all beside the point.
My point is that this utter lack of a plot would be perfectly fine if the movie were consistently funny. However, the fact of the matter is that the movie is only funny in fits and starts. There are a small handful of scenes that are ridiculous on an epic scale, and they're utterly brilliant (the final scene, for example). But for every sight gag or one-liner that really hits the mark, there are a dozen that don't even register a grin. Most off the jokes here are made up of random screamed obscenities, exaggerated death threats, or bizarre outbursts of over the top violence. Strangely, these things work in almost every other movie in Will Ferrell's catalog. So what's wrong here?
Well, for one, the whole idiot-manchild thing is kind of staid. For example, it would be one thing if the movie had starred Seth Rogen (who makes a brief appearance here) and Jonah Hill, or really any combination of the Apatow stable, as 20-somethings who acted like preteens. That, at least, would kind of make the premise work. As it is here, there's simply too great a disconnect between 40 years old and 10 years old, the way that Ferrell and Reilly play it. With a pair of 25 year olds, it might be oddly endearing and maybe even a little melancholic. The audience might have actually connected with two young adults who just can't bear to let their childhood go. With a pair of 40 year olds, it's just embarrassing. Apatow himself treated this kind of character with much more care in The 40 Year Old Virgin. So why couldn't the same have worked here?
I know, Will Ferrell et al were going for a kind of childish, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach here. That's fine. But the way the two leads play their characters, I would much rather see these two for a couple minutes every week on Saturday Night Live. Furthermore, I can't imagine that the film took very long to get from script to screen. A little incubation might have actually worked in the movie's favor. And I further can't believe that this movie cost $52 million to produce. Where's all that money? It certainly isn't on the screen.
There's no reason why a comedy like this couldn't have worked. In the end, it's simply too in love with it's own childishness to even be bothered trying to make you laugh. Unlike Adam Sandler in Billy Madison or even Andy Samberg in Hot Rod, the guys in Step Brothers simply have nowhere to go and nothing to do.
1.5 stars (*1/2) out of five.