To recap: I have now seen Fight Club (1999), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and Moana (2016). They are three movies that, when you tell people you have never seen them while also admitting that you review films, they give you strange looks. Well, now there is a fourth that I can look forward to being treated like an alien for not seeing, and that is Step Brothers (2008). It is an entry in the pantheon of Will Ferrell productions from the early 2000s, and one of a couple he did alongside John C. Reilly. While I had caught parts of it, I never sat down to commit an hour and a half to viewing it all in one go. I recall when it premiered and not being all that impressed with the previews, thus skipping a trip to the cinema for it. Before I started this blog, I was less committed to going to theaters. Now that I have done so, I will simply repeat what the old man I live with said afterwards: that movie had exactly three laughs in it.
The first thing you see in Step Brothers is a quote from former president George W. Bush: “Families are where our nation takes hope, where wings take dream.” This is supposed to set you up for the family disfunction to come. Its impetus is when Nancy Huff (Mary Steenburgen) and Dr. Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins) meet at a medical conference. Their whirlwind affair is fueled by the fact that each of them have a forty-year-old son living with them at home, literal man-children who apparently have no desire or reason to move out. Nancy is mother to Brennan (Will Ferrell), and Robert is father to Dale (John C. Reilly). The sparks between Nancy and Robert are fanned into a marriage, and she decides to move in with him. Coming with her, of course, is Brennan. Dale is not pleased. The next fifteen to twenty minutes are them trying to one up each other like little kids, and their rivalry is exacerbated by the fact that the one spare room is filled with Dale’s musical instrument that he never uses. Yet, because he refuses to give up the room for them, he must share his living space with Brennan. They would have carried on playing ridiculous pranks on one another if it were not for Brennan’s younger brother, Derek (Adam Scott), coming to dinner with his family. Derek is successful and willing to flaunt it in everyone’s face, particularly Brennan’s. When Derek sees Dale for being the same loser as Brennan, Derek takes aim at Dale as well. This is what breaks the wall between Brennan and Dale, and in the space of a couple of breaths they decide they are best friends. Now, instead of them trying to make each other’s lives miserable, the humor switches to them making their parent’s lives miserable. Reaching his wits’ end, Robert demands that they try to find jobs. Being who they are, they go to each interview together wearing tuxedos, and (though I cannot say for certain whether or not it was done purposely), blow every employment lead. Not wanting to disappoint their parents, they come up with a lunatic scheme to start an entertainment company they want to call Prestige International. It is based solely on Brennan’s purported legendary singing voice, and the fact that Dale has drums. Such ventures need capital, right? In order to lure those with deep pockets, they decide to film a rap video on Robert’s sailing boat, the same vessel he hoped to sail around the world in with Nancy. For some reason, Brennan and Dale keep the resulting disaster in the clip they show to people they think will invest. This is the last straw for Robert, and when Nancy tries to calm him down, it appears that she is siding with him and they divorce. Brennan blames Dale, Dale blames Brennan, and they are back to hating each other. What keeps them from murdering their former counterpart is that they have to find actual employment and apartments on their own, which they do with an eye of getting Nancy and Robert back together. Dale works for a catering company, while Brennan is hired to work with Derek’s company selling helicopter rentals to high-end clients. Brenan is the first to implement their plan, bringing everyone together at a business party on Catalina Island. Unfortunately, rowdy crowd members who want the Billy Joel tribute band brought in for entertainment to play his 1980s stuff instead of what they were playing threatens to ruin the day. Brennan saves it, though, by getting on stage and signing “angelically” “Por Ti Volare.” The inexplicable beauty of the song impresses the clients and brings Nancy and Robert back together. In turn, they decide to invite Brennan and Dale to live with them once more. And they all live happily ever after.
I think the humor of Step Brothers is meant to be taken from the unlikeliness of such grown men behaving as they do. When they finally decide to like each other, their first request is to turn their beds into bunk beds. Imagine, if you will, telling two eight-year-old kids to construct the stacked sleeping arrangement out of their own beds, and the hackneyed, barely held together result. Despite one of the once having a real job, one attending college for a time, they nail odd bits of wood to the corners, and it immediately falls apart as soon as Dale jumps on the top bunk. There are genitalia jokes, racial jokes, and jokes about people being of low intelligence, using words I do not wish to repeat. This is not just my Catholic sensibilities speaking. Modesty is a virtue in Christian Faith, and that is something sorely lacking in this movie. Also, I can take an off-color joke or two when they are sprinkled in at the right moments. But as you might guess from reading the descriptions above, that kind of humor is the whole film. This is all without mentioning the over-the-top sexuality between Dale and Derek’s wife, Alice (Kathryn Hahn). I am not criticizing this solely as a Catholic uncomfortable with extra-marital affairs. It is rather because it is so outrageous in how it is portrayed. Then again, subtlety is not these films strong suit.
Like the films I mentioned in the opening paragraph, I am sure there is little I could say about Step Brothers that would sway your opinion if you are a fan of it. Both of them have made better films separately. So, maybe try those first before coming back to this one? Otherwise, I would avoid it.