Big men, big ba­bies

An un­sub­tle com­edy of guys who refuse to grow up sur­pris­ingly grows on you, says Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

STEP BROTH­ERS Di­rected by Adam McKay. Star­ring Will Fer­rell, John C Reilly, Richard Jenk­ins, Mary Steen­bur­gen, Adam Scott, Katherine Hahn 16 cert, gen release, 98 min

MIGHT I be al­lowed a few mo­ments’ in­dul­gence to ar­gue that Step Broth­ers, in which Will Fer­rell and John C Reilly play mid­dle-aged 10-year-olds, is less of a broad com­edy than a pro­found ex­er­cise in old-fash­ioned sur­re­al­ism?

Think about it. The film finds the two un­em­ployed losers be­ing pressed to­gether af­ter Will’s mom and Reilly’s dad marry one an­other. Ob­sessed with loud rock mu­sic and big boo­bies, the two bicker like ba­bies and take ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to re­veal their patho­log­i­cal im­ma­tu­rity.

Watch as Will rubs his tes­ti­cles on John’s drum kit. Laugh as teenage bul­lies beat the lads up. Yet the film, oth­er­wise a stan­dard, quasi-nat­u­ral­is­tic Frat Pack af­fair, makes no se­ri­ous at­tempt to ac­knowl­edge the leads’ ap­par­ent learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties. And what’s all this with Mary Steen­bur­gen (born 1953) play­ing the mother of Will Fer­rell (born 1967)? It’s just like a Buñuel film. Isn’t it?

Well, no. Not re­ally. Step Broth­ers is the lat­est movie from Adam McKay, the di­rec­tor of An­chor­man and Tal­ladega Nights, and, like those two fine en­ter­tain­ments, it re­joices in mak­ing a virtue of its own ram­pant stu­pid­ity.

Long used to play­ing child­like men, Fer­rell is here of­fered the op­por­tu­nity to boil his stock char­ac­ter down to its gib­ber­ing essence. Mean­while, Reilly, who has re­cently found a way of us­ing his crushed vul­ner­a­bil­ity for comic pur­poses, knocks to­gether a char­ac­ter that con­veys the coiled vi­o­lence that lurks within many chil­dren.

In the course of the film they run through all the trau­mas of early ado­les­cence and, ex­ploit­ing the com­edy of dis­cor­dance to the full, make some­thing fresh and amus­ing of ev­ery one. Both ac­tors, aware that the film does have a point to make about mod­ern men and their un­will­ing­ness to grow up, al­low just enough mid­dle-aged mis­ery to creep in without tip­ping the film into to­tal ab­sur­dity.

The key per­for­mances may, how­ever, come from Richard Jenk­ins and Mary Steen­bur­gen as the par­ents. All comic sketches re­quire a stooge to stand by in be­wil­der­ment and make aghast com­ments at the an­tics of the prin­ci­pal co­me­dian. Richard and Mary ap­proach the task in var­i­ously ef­fec­tive ways. Whereas Steen­bur­gen reg­is­ters gen­uine sor­row at the boys’ oc­ca­sional crises – even shed­ding real tears at one point – Jenk­ins is the only per­son al­lowed to share the au­di­ence’s be­wil­der­ment at the un­fold­ing lu­nacy.

When the lads fi­nally make friends, they rush into their folks’ bed­room and pro­pose turn­ing their beds into bunks. This way, Will ex­plains, they can do more “ac­tiv­i­ties”. Only Jenk­ins seems to re­alise the odd­ness of the sit­u­a­tion. “You’re adults, you can do what you want,” he wails. The aware­ness that just one char­ac­ter knows the uni­verse is out of kil­ter adds an­other layer of de­light­ful ab­sur­dity to pro­ceed­ings.

So rather than be­ing a sur­real mas­ter­piece, Step Broth­ers is a clas­sic of low­brow hu­mour? That anal­y­sis doesn’t re­ally hold up ei­ther.

It is a con­tin­u­ing frus­tra­tion that the col­lab­o­ra­tions be­tween Fer­rell and McKay al­ways look as if (ap­pro­pri­ately for this project) they were writ­ten by two inat­ten­tive teenagers af­ter hap­pen­ing upon their big­ger brother’s main stash. One feels the urge to storm into the writ­ers’ heads and de­mand they tidy the place up a bit. Oh, you’ve left your de­noue­ment ly­ing un­at­tached in the mid­dle of your cere­bel­lum. What are th­ese un­re­solved sub­plots do­ing curled around your synapses? I hope you don’t ex­pect your fa­ther and me to tidy up this mess.

Is the chaos in­tended? Maybe, rather than be­ing a sur­real fa­ble, the film is a great meta-struc­tural ex­per­i­ment whose nar­ra­tive dis­or­der mir­rors its char­ac­ters’ ado­les­cent tur­moil.

Well, prob­a­bly not. But it is very funny.

You’re stupid! No, you’re stupid! Reilly and Fer­rell in Step Broth­ers

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