Pushing producer Judd Apatow’s trademark man-child premise to its absurd extreme, Step Brothers concerns two middle-aged men no more mature than your average 10-year-old. When their single parents marry, do-nothings Brennan (Will Ferrell) and Dale (John C. Reilly) are unhappily forced to coexist under one roof, instigating a step-sibling rivalry where sacred toys must not be touched, dinner table stare-downs are compulsory, and vicious insults and threats are par for the course. After the Dadaist insanity of Anchorman and the buffoonish cultural lampoon of Talladega Nights, director Adam McKay’s third big-screen collaboration with Ferrell seems, on the surface, to be his least ambitious, a prolonged, straightforward, profanity-laced gag about two grownups acting like combative youngsters while their parents scold them for naughtiness and fret over their bleak future prospects. And admittedly, if that were all the film was up to, it would almost be enough, given the consistent hilarity generated by Ferrell and Reilly, whose natural, foul-mouthed comedic chemistry is rooted in outlandish declarations (“Your voice is like a cross between Fergie and Jesus,” Dale tells a crooning Brennan) and halting, off-kilter banter in which comebacks are delivered too quickly and conversational pauses last a second too long.
There’s something brilliantly stupid (or stupidly brilliant) about the sight of Ferrell and Reilly in vintage ‘80s t-shirts smacking each other around like steroidal kids, though it’s the little things that make their complementary performances thrive, such as a bout of crying—Ferrell’s mounting wail creeping out of a wide-open mouth, Reilly’s tantrum so extreme it engenders vomiting—that expertly replicates toddler meltdowns. Brennan and Dale’s antagonism soon unites them in brotherhood against a common enemy, Dale’s slightly younger bro Derek (Adam Scott), a blowhard whose smarmy smiles and faux-chipper laughs recall a more ingratiating, insufferable Tom Cruise.
While successful Derek is the model of adulthood that Brennan and Dale are expected to emulate, it’s their guardians—Brennan’s mother Nancy (Mary Steenburgen) and Dale’s father Robert (Richard Jenkins)—who convey Step Brothers‘s sly appraisal of faulty parenting as partly responsible for the country’s arrested-development epidemic. Permissive, mollycoddling Nancy and stern, fed-up Robert are failures, less because of interest in their sons’ development than because of their parental/rearing strategies. And it’s to the film’s credit that even though it refuses to take its story or critique too seriously (Frankenstein-spastic sleepwalking stunts by Ferrell and Reilly are, deservedly, far higher up on its list of priorities), its humor is predicated on at least semi-serious notions about the shortcomings of parents regarding their offspring’s upbringing.
Not everything works—a blind neighbor with a ravenous seeing-eye dog is dull, a bunk bed bit is fairly stale—and some scenes that do would have benefited from a touch more of Anchorman‘s anything-goes fantasyland farce. Nonetheless, McKay’s clean, crisp direction is well attuned to his stars’ verbal rhythms, and his script (co-written with Ferrell) does recurrently partake in crazed lunacy, such as an extramarital affair that concludes with a lady using a urinal (prompting Dale to remark, “You’re incredible”) and a climactic rendition of Andrea Bocelli’s “Con te Partirò” that inspires, in a distant woman, a reverie involving a seed-spreading lumberjack. When it takes off into bizarre realms, the film most confidently finds its goofy groove, as well as most vigorously (and good-naturedly) mocks the boys-just-want-to-stay-boys genre that Apatow has made his lucrative own. Which is to say that McKay and Ferrell’s latest generally succeeds at having its cake and devouring it too, mining juvenile behavior for inane laughs while also, via a coda involving beating the shit out of schoolyard punks, ridiculing stories wherein immaturity must eventually be discarded for adulthood.