Step Brothers (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell) and Dale Doback (John C. Reilly) the titular pair in Step Brothers are 40-year-old losers, unemployed and still living with their respective single parents (Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins) when those parents meet and decide to get married.
But Brennan and Dale are more than 40-year-old losers; they're losers stuck with the emotional development of 12-year-olds. Brennan struggles not to burst into tears when Dale insults him, and Dale avoids the playground with its bullying schoolchildren. They're equally fascinated with Chewbacca, night-vision goggles and Hustler magazines. And, of course, they find nothing funnier than naughty words as punch lines.
Ferrell and writing partner Adam McKay previously teamed up on the surreally goofy hit comedies Anchorman and Talladega Nights, both of which rolled into theaters with PG-13 ratings. But something happened between Talladega Nights and Step Brothers specifically, an infamous viral video short called The Landlord. Starring a profanity-spewing toddler, The Landlord became a phenomenon and apparently convinced Ferrell and McKay that if you're making a movie about vulgar and immature characters, the movie should be as vulgar and immature as possible.
Hold your dismissals of these as the ramblings of a prudish crank; sometimes, as in the works of Judd Apatow (a producer here), low humor can be entertaining. But when it works, it's because there's more than the impulse to offend. There's a difference between using your f-bombs as seasoning, and offering them up as the meal itself.
And that's what Step Brothers turns into: a three-course banquet of fuck soup, fucking roast beef and motherfucker sorbet.
None of which means it's completely worthless. Ferrell and McKay do know how to carve laughs out of bizarre non-sequiturs, like the mutterings and random destructiveness of Brennan and Dale's joint sleepwalking. There's a priceless bit involving Brennan's overachieving younger brother Derek (Adam Scott) leading his family in a four-part harmony of "Sweet Child o' Mine." And it's hard to deny the simple visual kick of the two paunchy stars wandering around in jockey shorts and vintage Pablo Cruise and Judds T-shirts.
Anchorman and Talladega Nights functioned more as collections of individual gags, but in those cases the gags actually had punch lines. Step Brothers, in nearly every case, replaces an actual creative idea with variations on the magic four-letter word or, when they feel particularly adventurous, with something like "camel dicks" instead.
And it's not simply a case of letting 'em fly because it's appropriate for the characters; it's considered just as valid to have sexagenarian professionals Steenburgen and Jenkins blast the epithet. After 90 minutes, the need to attach a bodily function, body part, sexual reference or a profanity to nearly every line of spoken dialogue simply comes off as tiresome and lacking in imagination.
In this movie's universe, Ferrell and McKay treat their R rating like a burden, compelling them to employ all the words they couldn't use in their PG-13 comedies. This may be a story of two man-children with serious issues, but by the end, it's not just the characters that I wanted to tell to grow the fuck up.