Saturday, August 02, 2008

'Step Brothers' is a couple steps below good

Will Ferrell is a love-him or hate-him comedic performer. If you love him, you may give “Step Brothers” a pass, but if you hate him you are really going to hate his third film with director and co-writer Adam McKay.

After showing he was capable of a genuine performance in 2006's "Stranger Than Fiction," Ferrell has been taking roles in movies like "Blades of Glory" and "Semi-Pro" that don't force him to stretch and allow him to tread water instead of truly diving into a juicy role.

In "Step Brothers," Ferrell and John C. Reilly, who were such a dynamic comedic duo together in “Talladega Nights,” star as two obnoxious 40-ish losers who still live at home and act like incredibly immature adolescents. When their sweet, intelligent parents played by Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”) fall in love and get married, the two men are forced to live together.

A little of this premise goes a long way. In fact it would’ve worked wonders as a reoccurring “Saturday Night Live” sketch. But as a feature film it doesn’t sustain comedic energy. There are isolated scenes that are hilarious, as when Ferrell and Reilly realize they aren’t enemies, but best friends. This scene appears in the trailer; in fact, most of the best scenes do. This is a definitely a case of if you’ve seen the trailer you’ve seen the film.

I laughed out loud once every 10 minutes, which makes the film just good enough. Compared to “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights,” Ferrell’s two previous collaborations with McKay, that laugh ratio is not nearly high enough.

The film is vulgar for the sake of being vulgar. There’s nothing wrong with being vulgar per se, and there are far more obscene films than this, but listening to a couple of adults belittle each other with obscenity-laced schoolyard insults becomes tired quick. It doesn’t help that every scene that works is repeated at least once.

If you actually care about characters or if they are at least somewhat recognizably human, it does help balance a film’s crude humor. Writer/director Kevin Smith knows this and laces his films with an underlining sweetness or at least attempts to say something about society. Similarly, “Bad Santa” is one of the most obscene films around, but it also works as a well-observed character study of a certain kind of person.

“Step Brother” doesn’t really have anything to say about adulthood or growing up, and not that it should, but the film is lacking that slight satiric edge that gave “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights” a bit more mileage out of the more outrageous humor.

The set-up also could’ve been aided by a surreal or absurdist touch. These characters are more than immature adults, they seem borderline insane or mentally handicapped. Surprisingly, once the basic premise is established, it really isn’t taken anywhere that a bad sitcom wouldn’t have gone.

Ferrell and Reilly play these characters as teens in adult bodies. This can work as a comedic device — just look at Tom Hanks’ work in “Big,” for example, but that film gave a reason for Hanks' behavior.

Steenburgen, who previously brought a touch of class to Ferrell’s “Elf,” and Jenkins are wasted as the parents. They are both giving good performances, but they are not true characters; rather, they are just a mechanism of the plot. It is a shame because there is chemistry between the actors and they deserve better than this.

“Step Brothers” isn’t awful, it is just merely OK. Don’t waste your money seeing it in theaters, but if you’re looking to kill time it is decent renter. Of course, at that point you are better of renting some of Ferrell and Reilly’s better films. I recommend Ferrell’s aforementioned previous collaborations with McKay and Reilly’s under seen, but hilarious “Walk Hard.”

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