Okay, so I'm done with Will Ferrell films. The next time I go to see anything with Ferrell attached it will have to have some amazing buzz going for it. The actor/ writer has banked on the success of a few early films for too long. After the one two punch of "Old School" and "Elf", Ferrell's stardom was cemented and he made "Anchorman" with Adam McKay, a buddy of his. Since then, the two have made a series of films, which are basically the same, the premise changing slightly. Every time, he plays some variation of a man/child, someone who is so full of themselves, they can't help but clash with the rest of the people around them, the normal people, and the laughter and hilarity begin. And you do laugh. For about twenty minutes. As soon as the premise of each film is set-up, the jokes become increasingly scattershot, sophomoric, dumb, repetitive and ill conceived. "Step Brothers" is the latest example of this problem.
Brennan (Ferrell) and Dale (John C. Reilly) are each approaching 40 and more than a little put out their single parents are remarrying. Brennan's mom, Nancy (Mary Steenburgen) moves in with Dale's dad, Robert (Richard Jenkins). Because both of their adult children live with them, Brennan moves in as well and has to share a room with Dale. Both guys have never matured past adolescence, so they begin strutting around trying to outdo one another, making the other cry, the like. Nancy and Robert have plans to save money for a few years, finish the refurbishments on his yacht, then retire and sail the world together. But Brennan's younger brother, Derek (Adam Scott) and his wife and kids pay a visit. Robert immediately falls for Derek's line and agrees to let Derek try to sell their house, making them enough money to retire right away. Nancy is a little alarmed, because Brennan and Dale have nowhere to go, but Robert promises to take care of that. In the meantime, Brennan and Dale realize they have a lot in common and become best friends. Their first goal is to thwart the sale of the house and give Derek trouble. Robert sets up some interviews for Brennan and Dale and when these fail, they decide to set-up their own company, using Brennan's long silent singing skills as the leaping point to make millions.
Directed by Adam McKay and co-written by McKay and Ferrell, "Step Brothers" has an amusing premise, like all of Will Ferrell's films. But once the premise is set-up, there isn't anywhere else to go. When there isn't anywhere for the story to go, new places and ideas for us to see, the rest of the film simply becomes an exercise in showing more and more situations, trying to get us to laugh at the same things.
It is pretty well known that once you have a huge hit or two under your belt, you can pretty much write your own ticket in Hollywood and make whatever films you want to make. Studios will jump into bed with you no matter how crazy the idea. Director and producer Judd Apatow is a recent example of this. After the success of "The 40 Year Old Virgin", "Knocked Up" and "Superbad", he can pretty much make whatever he wants. And he has flexed this muscle, producing a series of films featuring his friends in starring roles, or putting his name on other comedies. Unfortunately, the quality of these offerings has varied greatly and his name doesn't mean what it once did to me. I was going to pretty much every film he "produced" and bought tickets for "Forgetting Sarah Marshall", which was very funny, and "Drillbit Taylor", which wasn't. Apatow is one of the producers on "Step Brothers" and he runs a real danger of becoming exactly what all the critics were hailing him as the savior of, the lackluster, dumb comedies so prevalent in our multiplexes. His comedies were hailed as the second coming and now his name simply means you should take a closer look. "Pineapple Express" will be a real test for him, to see if he can produce a film with the same quality as a film he also directs. "Express" stars Seth Rogen and James Franco (ex- "Freaks and Geeks" alumni) as two potheads who try to elude gangsters and crooked cops and is directed by David Gordon Green. Green is not exactly known for comedy work, he directed "George Washington", "All The Pretty Girls" and "Undertow", but it could make for an interesting film. See? There I go again, trying to be hopeful about another Apatow film.
All of Ferrell's films have interesting and unusual premises, ideas so bizarre they make you laugh when you simply think about them. Two male figure skaters, former rivals, must teams up and compete in the pairs competition to win gold. An egotistical newscaster, in the 70s, has to bring the various crazies at his station together to save everyone's jobs when he feels threatened by his new female co-anchor. And "Step Brothers" is no exception. The simple idea of two 40-year-old man-children moving in with their parents, sharing a room, is funny. And for about twenty minutes, you may find yourself laughing.
Ferrell has played this type of character before as well, so you might expect him to have mastered the role by this point, recognizing the problems inherent with the character. In each of his recent films, he plays an egotistical blowhard or someone who hasn't fully matured or both. The main comic premise is that each of these characters has to adapt or overcome some obstacle in order to survive. The problem is that none of them really change. They stay the same, getting in the same problems, one after another, doing the same things, saving the learning bit until the very end. Because Ferrell's characters never change how can we create a bond with them? In "Step Brothers", this moment of change happens very late and seems more artificial than normal and tacked on somehow.
John C. Reilly is good as Dale, the stepbrother who has to deal with Brennan when he moves into his house. As the 'child' who has established roots in the house, he is in charge and sets the rules because he has the homecourt advantage. Brennan's lips quiver and he starts crying when Dale becomes too pushy. These small bits are funny. For a few moments. At the same time, each of these guys is an adult, so they are also more mature in their immaturity. There is a funny scene between Dale and his dad, after they have breakfast the morning Nancy and Brenna are due to arrive. Dale is trying to figure out all of the ways the new living arrangements can give him power over his new brother. And tries to convince his father that Nancy might come on to him.
Eventually, the two stepbrothers realize they have a lot in common and begin to play in wild abandon, much like twelve year olds might, which is fitting since this is clearly the intended audience. It is fun to watch them run upstairs, read "Playboy" instead of comic books, play silly word games and decide they should build bunk beds.
Then the film comes crashing down.
Mary Steenburgen plays Nancy, Brennan's mother, and she is fine. But at some point in the film, I expected her to set her foot down, much like her husband does. Instead, she wants to coddle her sons, providing them with a place to live until they are ready. The problem is, they will never be ready unless they are forced to move out. So very quickly you just want to slap Nancy and tell her to snap out of it.
Richard Jenkins is better as Robert, Dale's dad. You will probably recognize Jenkins from "Six Feet Under" (he played the dead patriarch of the family who would frequently pop up to provide advice to his children or widowed wife) and he recently had a very good lead role in "The Visitor", a small independent film that has really caught on with the public. In "Step Brothers", he brings a certain goofy charm to the role of Robert. When Derek arrives on the scene, he becomes almost smitten with Nancy's younger son, clearly impressed with everything the young man has accomplished, gushing over him, waiting on baited breath for his next word. And Robert recognizes that his sons are screw ups and need a push out the door.
"Step Brothers" is like all other Will Farrell films; an interesting, unusual, funny premise in search of stronger laughs, better acting and higher production values. "Step Brothers" is, ultimately, the type of film you will catch on basic cable, watch for a few minutes and then give up on it. When it is on again, you will probably catch a few other minutes and en give up on it because the phone is ringing. You might catch a laugh or two; you might even end up watching the whole film. But it won't command your attention and it doesn't have a right to.