"Step Brothers" is stupid, predictable and fairly funny, though even its bigger laughs—John C. Reilly clocking Will Ferrell with a cymbal in a nicely judged medium shot, for example—make you wonder if the whole arrested-adolescent streak in contemporary screen comedy may be running its course.
Watch the red-band trailer for this picture, the one with the R-rated language intact, and you'll get a good idea of what's in store. Too good, really: The R-rated teaser makes the film seem sharper and quicker on its feet than it is. The feature itself, co-written by Ferrell and director Adam McKay, is more hit and miss and come and go and now and then, coasting on its stars' schlub-a-dub chemistry.
The set-up: Ferrell plays Brennan, 39 and living with mom ( Mary Steenburgen, sweetly tolerant of her surly offspring). Reilly is Dale, 40, still at home with dad (Richard Jenkins). The parents meet, fall in love, and suddenly you have a blended-family situation of extreme volatility (injurious pranks take up a good deal of screen time) followed by extreme bonding.
The scene of Brennan and Dale realizing they have a few things in common is a highlight, particularly for the way Reilly's character, who's deeply into Chewbacca and fantasy baseball, says, "Yup!" after an excited but poker-faced Ferrell asks him, "Did we just become best friends?"
That's what you remember a day or two later—the ants-in-the-pants urgency behind each new project undertaken by these boy-men (such as turning their beds into bunk beds, with grim results). The film is simply a collection of scenes with a tiny bit of a plot, involving Brennan's heinous younger brother (Adam Scott) and his lustful wife (Kathryn Hahn), who has a fling with the wide-eyed Dale.
The trick to the Men II Boyz comic genre—where grown men are simply older, pudgier versions of their teen selves, struggling to find their place in the world—is to find the surprises and payoffs within the Peter Pan syndrome.
This is why "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" worked so well. The jokes came and went quickly, usually without a lot of laborious preparation, and you went with the socially retarded flow of things.
Another hit overseen by arrested-development comic impresario Judd Apatow, "Superbad," looked at actual teenagers desperate for their adult lives (and sexual lives) to begin, yet terrified of the unknown. The guyness of the humor was unapologetic; so was the underlying sweetness, made funnier by the surrounding raunch.
Up against those films, the Apatow-produced "Step Brothers" seems bland. Still, I laughed a few times—more often, in fact, than I laughed at "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," in which McKay first paired Ferrell and Reilly.
Next time, though, it's time for a change-up. I'm not saying Shakespeare. I'm just saying, enough with the 40-year-old teenagers for a while.
See the trailer and find local showtimes for "Step Brothers."