I'm starting to believe that former "SNL" star Will Ferrell and former "SNL" writer Adam McKay bring out the best -- and worst -- in each other.
"Step Brothers," their third cinematic collaboration after "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" and "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," again has them indulging in their personalized brand of doggedly loose, hopelessly absurd movie comedy. Ferrell does whatever he thinks is funny at that exact moment, while McKay captures it all on film. (Our TV guy Danny Hooley put it best when he said they make "best-of-three-or-four-takes movies.") One can only imagine what a Ferrell/McKay film set is like, as both men try to out-funny each other at all costs -- until somebody reminds them, "Guys, we're supposed to be making a movie!"
As the title implies, Ferrell and his "Talladega" co-star John C. Reilly become bound-by-marriage siblings when their respective single parents (Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins) tie the knot. Despite the fact that they're both full-grown men pushing 40, they still live at home in a perpetual state of full-fledged, arrested development.
At first living under the same roof causes tension between the two, leading to fights out on the front lawn. But they eventually bond over their love of cool things like night-vision goggles, skin mags and John Stamos. Their parents would prefer if they bonded while moving out of their house.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
I couldn't help but go into this movie wondering how Ferrell and McKay can mine comedy out of a premise so inane, flimsy and -- quite honestly -- a bit sad. (Didn't we go through this creepy-guy-living-at-home shtick when Tom Green made that infernal "Freddy Got Fingered" several years ago?) But you soon realize the premise is beside the point. It's all about getting laughs by any means necessary, and "Brothers," like the Ferrell/McKay movies before it, doesn't mind eschewing narrative logic and even its characters' common sense in its myriad attempts to make you chuckle.
Sometimes "Brothers" succeeds, especially in scenes that require Ferrell, Reilly or whoever's on camera to be as coarse and profane as possible. This movie really does take its "R" rating out for a spin. (The movie's most delightfully vulgar moments don't come from either Ferrell or Reilly, but from Kathryn Hahn as Ferrell's sister-in-law, who takes a stalkerish liking to Reilly. Thanks to her, I can't look at a bidet without giggling.)
And sometimes, it doesn't know when to stop; scenes don't comedically flow so much as they just waddle on. The movie is pretty much a hit-or-miss jamboree, as McKay (the only director who has managed to fully use Ferrell's comic potential on film, in my opinion) lets his boy and the cast go bugnuts crazy, only to neglect roping them back in when time calls for some kind of tangible subtlety.
You could say that "Brothers" is another deceptively lowbrow comedy that satirizes men's ongoing fear of becoming, well, men. (Judd Apatow, who has made himself a major Hollywood playa by trafficking in this genre, co-produced the movie.) Ferrell and Reilly's characters should be sliding into middle-age malaise quite comfortably. Instead, they're both foul-mouthed men-children, practically afraid of leaving their home (and their freedom from responsibility) in order to face the big, bad world.
I have a feeling that Ferrell and McKay would much rather you view "Step Brothers" as a silly, funny movie. It is, but only half of the time.