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Step Brothers Proves Filthy Dialogue Isn’t Funny By Itself

Step Brothers
Directed by Adam McKay
Written by McKay, and Will Ferrell from a story by McKay, Ferrell, and John C. Reilly
Sony, 2008

It’s fairly common in the Apatow universe to have characters say outrageous things peppered with a high f-bomb count. Many rants in Apatow’s productions have been amazing, particularly Seth Rogen in Knocked Up and Jonah Hill in Superbad. But when the characters have nothing to say other than to drop constant profanity and the supposed zingers come up lame, you’re in for a long experience at the movies. And Step Brothers is certainly one of those.

There probably isn’t a more fun experience in making movies than doing them with your friends, but I think this can also be harmful to the final product. While many people love SNL alum McKay’s first team-up with Ferrell outside of the show, Anchorman, I don’t know many people who adore Talladega Nights, the second film made between the two that just contained long stretches of unfunny riffs.

McKay and Ferrell, and later Apatow, founded funnyordie.com and it’s gotten some attention, mainly for a foul-mouthed child landlord sketch that I scratch my head over its supposed hilarity. My point is, I think there can be an issue with impartiality when it comes to hashing out what is funny and what isn’t, and no one wants to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’m sure if you ask McKay, Ferrell, and Apatow, they’ll say something like, “We are our hardest critics,” but it’s kind of hard to believe.

In Step Brothers, 39-year-old Brennan (Ferrell) lives with his mother Nancy (Mary Steenburgen), who meets doctor/lecturer Robert (Richard Jenkins) and quickly marries him. Robert has a live-in son of his own, 40-year-old Dale (John C. Reilly). The two childish step brothers are not too keen on living with each other, establishing extreme boundaries and making threats. When Brennan’s younger, more successful douchebag brother Derek (Adam Scott) starts making his new stepdad Robert dream of sailing his boat and retiring early, he puts his foot down and forces the brothers to look for jobs or get kicked out of the house.

Brennan and Dale’s mutual hatred of Derek creates the beginnings of a friendship between the two. Even Derek’s wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn, who might get the most laughs in this picture) is enamored with Dale after he punches her husband. The two try to get their lives together, especially when strains on Robert and Nancy’s marriage become apparent.

Most of the laughs are attempted from the fact that these grown men are actually children (with potty mouths). Like any movie set up with lots and lots of jokes, several will hit. But it has a low ratio of jokes that actually work. The plot of the movie could have been served better by making it sort of War of the Roses only with brothers, darkly comic as the brothers try to off one another. One of the funniest moments in the film, Ferrell trying to bury Reilly alive, proves this. And another forte of McKay is to go off the map for a joke, as he did in Anchorman with the rival-station knife fight. But we don’t see this type of thing until later in the movie. There’s also a fantastic in-the-credits fight sequence that shows how funny this movie could have been.

But meanwhile, the film is more interested in all that dirty language, incorrectly identified as the reason why anyone went to go see movies like Knocked Up and Superbad. Ferrell did this earlier in the year with the R-rated Semi-Pro, seemingly thinking that springing a swear word into a normal sentence would make it funny. As we will see with Pineapple Express, another Apatow production written by Seth Rogen, there is an art to the filthiness, to already have an observation on deck that mixes well with the naughty words.

You know when you watch outtakes or deleted scenes on a DVD and you can easily see why certain random, improvised stuff was left on the cutting room floor? This is the movie that keeps it in. Enjoy.

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