Will Ferrell makes two kinds of silly comedies. There are the silly ones that are very funny, BLADES OF GLORY comes to mind, and then there are the silly ones that are wretched. KICKING AND SCREAMING comes to mind. STEP BROTHERS falls, alas, into the latter category. It is a one-joke film dreamed up by Ferrell and co-star John C. Reilly that runs out of steam in the first ten minutes. The most notable aspect of the film is that while Ferrell and Reilly riff, badly, on the premise of two 40-year-old men still living at home in a state of emotional pre-adolescence, it is co-stars Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen, as the enabling parents, who deliver the only serious laughs to be found in it.
They are Nancy and Robert, and they meet, in the carnal sense, when he spies her in the audience of a lecture he is giving on hearing aids. Their prelude to passion includes him giving a précis on his hobbies as they rip each other’s clothes off. Before finishing the job entirely, he blurts out that he has a grown son still living at home. It bring things to a halt, but only long enough for Nancy to confess that she, too, has one at home before setting about to seriously consummate with her new-found soul-mate. They marry, much to the chagrin of both sons, and the non-attendance of Nancy’s younger son who is on a fishing trip. She moves into Robert’s house, where her son Brennan (Ferrell) and his son Dale (Reilly) take an instant dislike to one another that expresses itself in excessive catsup squeezing, death threats involving mousetraps and genitalia, and sleepwalking episodes that result in bad, bad things happening to fashion accessories and major appliances. But all that changes when Brennan’s wildly successful brother, Derek (Adam Scott) comes to dinner with his preppy wife and even more preppy children. The step-brothers hate him more than they hate each other, but the resulting bonding only makes life more unmanageable for their parents, as unseemly ways of dishonoring drum sets, ways usually reserved for strip clubs and even then requiring a hefty tip, give way to assaults on pumpkins and unfortunate choices in home construction projects.
Ferrell and Reilly are exactly like petulant, moody, and excitable 12-year-olds that have been spoiled by overindulgent parents. The key word is exactly. On the one hand, capturing that magical time when a boy’s wookie mask and porn stash really were the pinnacle of existence is impressive. On the other hand, it makes them distinctly unpleasant to watch. It’s bad enough when kids act that way, but there is something about grown men behaving in that manner that isn’t so much funny as off-putting, as in reliving the worst college roommate you can think of. When they are set upon by the neighborhood bullies, the rooting factor has to be with the bullies who are only doing what many in the audience would like to do. Jenkins and Steenburgen, though nominally the straight man and woman of the piece, instead demonstrate how the right amount of deadpan restraint can work wonders with thin material. He beaming with an unabashed and unrestrained man-crush over Derek, the closest thing he has ever had to a successful child. She inquiring with a nurturing sort of disappointment about why exactly Dale had to fart so extensively during a job interview she had set up for him. The funniest moments either Ferrell or Reilly conjure are the non-sequitors that they shout out when waking up and it is the very randomness rather than the delivery that makes them funny. And the way Steenburgen frets to herself about what the boys are dreaming that lead to death threats against Mr. Spock.
STEP BROTHERS replays variations on the same joke ad nauseam. That would be two guys hopelessly ill-equipped and ill-inclined to take tackle being adult. That the film itself never attempts to achieve more than the humor enjoyed by 12-year-old boys may make it ironic, but it doesn’t make it funny.