In the gospel according to Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and even Will Ferrell, to become a successful comedic actor in Hollywood, it’s traditional practice that you go for giggles first and awards later. Along the way, these stars and others have literally done anything for a laugh from sticking bananas in tailpipes in Beverly Hills Cop to beating themselves up in a bathroom in Liar, Liar before suddenly these multimillion dollar men decide they’d like the opportunity go from pratfall to highbrow in order to earn some indie film cred, show off their acting chops, and maybe earn a golden statue or two in the process.
Unfortunately, regardless of numerous accolades and positive critical acclaim, the public usually isn’t as supportive of seeing someone like Adam Sandler cry in Spanglish or Reign Over Me. And by staying away from theatres in droves, it sends a loud and clear message to Hollywood that when it comes time for spending our hard earned dollar, we’d rather be the ones who cry… in fits of laughter, that is. More importantly, despite mixed views, when these stars stretch their range from comedy to drama, it reminds viewers just how skilled one must be as a performer to have made humor look so effortless, which becomes especially apparent when “serious” actors decide to tackle comedy to sometimes disastrous results. It’s become an oft-repeated phrase that the worst thing one can do as an actor in a comedy is to try to be funny and typically, that’s precisely the crime most serious actors are guilty of when they make the leap from Shakespeare territory to Judd Apatow country.
With this in mind, it’s been a refreshing and delightfully unexpected surprise to discover the ridiculous hilarity of former independent film favorite John C. Reilly as he’s gone from his earlier work in films like Casualties of War, Boogie Nights, The Thin Red Line, Magnolia, The Hours, The Good Girl and Gangs of New York to dazzling all of us with his Oscar nominated turn in Chicago. While his role in that film was filled with emotion most notably on display in the show-stopping number “Mr. Cellophane,” it recalled some of the comedic spark he’d begun to ignite even briefly in his previous roles. And after showing up for an un-credited daring turn as a bullying monk in Anger Management, the comedy world took note, and Reilly has just gotten funnier with each passing year, making the sad-sack character he cornered the market on in the past seem like a distant memory, especially when he was paired alongside Will Ferrell for the 2006 Nascar comedy, Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby.
The freewheeling, improvisational style of Ferrell clicked so well with Reilly’s unlimited range that even when the film threatened to take a few wrong turns and go off course, seeing the two of them together is what elevated that film above some of Ferrell’s lackluster comedies over the past few years as he’s spread himself far too thin. While Ferrell made the bold decision to forgo another easy paycheck to appear in a few serious works, including a tremendous turn in the woefully underrated Stranger than Fiction before returning to his humorous roots, Reilly continued to dabble with comedy, becoming an Apatow favorite after his work in director Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
However, as good as the men were solo, audiences who’d begun wearing out their Frat Pack comedy DVDs including Talladega, Anchorman, Wedding Crashers, Old School, Dodgeball, Semi-Pro and others longed for the two to reunite. And working with their Talladega team of director/co-writer Adam McKay and producer Judd Apatow, they’ve finally done so. With this in mind, they go from Talladega’s “Shake and Bake” to “Dragon” and “Nighthawk” a.k.a. Dale and Brennan in the far trashier but downright hilarious new release, Step Brothers.
Middle-aged, lazy and filled with a narcissistic sense of entitlement, the two star as overgrown children with one of the most twisted versions of Peter Pan Syndrome you’re likely to see in a mainstream comedy. Still living at home, without the benefit of college education and little in the way of job prospects which would undoubtedly interfere with their overreliance on video games, fanboy culture, junk food and round the clock television, Dale (Reilly) and Brennan (Ferrell) leech off their respective parents, played by Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor).
Predictably however, just minutes into the film, at an out-of-town work conference, the parents meet and decide to marry after an impulsive coupling. Even odder, their horny hookup becomes filled with greater glee when the strangers bond in a hotel suite amidst the realization that they’re both stricken with the same ailment of not being able to kick their roughly forty year old children out of their houses. Although the bliss of the newlyweds is cut short when Nancy (Steenburgen) and Brennan move into the home occupied by Jenkins’ Robert Doback and Brennan’s equally immature new stepbrother Dale.
After sizing each other up on the front lawn whereby they state their wish to go by tougher monikers (the aforementioned Dragon and Nighthawk), the new family make a strained attempt at bonding over dinner. As expected when the “boys” are forced to share a room with one another and proceed to menace each other with vicious, foul-mouthed threats, in the following days it escalates into physical brutality culminating in an over-the-top fight which nearly tears apart the entire house.
However, soon the foes become fast friends when they unexpectedly bond upon the discovery that Brennan’s smug, yuppie, pompous, name-dropping, slang-happy, SUV driving younger brother Derek (Adam Scott) is an even bigger jerk than both of them put together. But after Derek-- who’s not above insulting his wife (Kathryn Hahn) and forcing his children into a sing along-- makes it his new mission to sell Robert’s home for a monster profit so the elders can retire, thereby forcing Dale and Brennan out of the house, the two newly aligned step brothers must concoct a grand scheme first to sabotage Derek’s real estate ambitions while avoiding taking on anything resembling a job.
Quickly, as expected and par for the Frat Pack comedy course, they realize that their antics are starting to drive an irreparable wedge in their parents’ relationship and understand that—better late than never and definitely on their own terms—it’s time to attempt to grow up. And while the third act falters and feels a bit forced in rushing to wrap up all the loose ends, it’s saved by a truly memorable musical number at a Catalina Wine Mixer that is sure to get fans recommending it to others, telling them that it’s something they’ll just have to see to believe.
Earning its “R” rating only moments into the movie, the overwhelmingly foul-mouthed and mean-spirited first forty-five minutes of the film threatens to kill the successful and genuinely earnest humor that follows. While it may leave a bad taste in your mouth—especially considering some of the unnecessarily vulgar sight gags, not to mention the guilty feeling of finding humor in something so juvenile-- it’s the charm of Reilly and Ferrell that saves the film.
Although you’ll definitely want to keep your children away, despite the appeal of the leads since the comedy isn’t as family friendly as the laughs served up in Talladega, the presence of the two and the sheer exuberance on display in their performances reminds us that no matter how cruel the actions of the characters are, you just know that it’s done with the best of intentions. And ultimately you can’t help but buy into the silliness as they damn near break their necks in order to just make us laugh, making Step Brothers a wickedly funny, if uneven blend of a little surprisingly sweet and some horrifically sour comedy.
Note: Be sure to stay in your seats after the credits begin to roll as Reilly and Ferrell exact revenge on a group of playground bullies in an admittedly tasteless yet unforgettably hilarious finale.