It's a phenomenon in our culture that is both understandable and inexplicable: adults who choose to live with their parents. It's become so prevalent that there are even pop names for it. They're the "boomerang generation" or "twixters," individuals stuck betwixt adolescence and adulthood
On the one hand it makes sense why some people would never want to leave home. It's nice for Mom to cook your dinner, clean your house, wash your dishes, and do your laundry. It's great for Dad to pay the rent. And, oh, isn't it wonderful for all of one's paycheck - if a twixter is even working - to go toward recreation?
On the other hand there's the poisonous social stigma. So-called "losers who live in their parents' basement" are a class that reap plenty of ridicule. You just can't take a date back to the parents' house. Sorry, doesn't work.
This theme has been explored before in comedy to mixed results. The 2006 "Failure to Launch" was a hit with Matthew McConaughey fans and almost no one else. Now it's being taken out again in a different fashion and to a much stronger outcome. With "Failure to Launch" the idea was applied to the romantic comedy, now with "Step Brothers" it's getting the Will Ferrell treatment.
"Step Brothers" reunites Ferrell with his "Talladega Nights" co-star John C. Reilly, director and co-writer Adam McKay, and producer Judd Apatow. The film builds upon the tremendous comedic chemistry of Ferrell and Reilly that their previous picture portrayed. Nancy Huff (Mary Steenburgen) and Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins) are two successful singles in their late 50s who fall for one another. The two find they have much in common but one fact in particular unites them: they each have a 40-year-old man-child that still lives at home.
Brennan Huff (Ferrell) and Dale Doback (Reilly) are practically mirror images of each other. They're both adult men who seemed to have stopped maturing emotionally and intellectually at age 14 or so. Both still live at home and behave in every conceivable way like children.
When Nancy and Robert marry they move in with one another and so their man children come with them. At first Brennan and Dale hate one another. They hurl insults and eventually engage in vicious hand-to-hand combat. Eventually they come to realize the obvious: they're so similar that it only makes sense to become friends. And it's that friendship that they must rely on when they're both finally given the ultimatum from their parents to move out of the house.
"Step Brothers" is further evidence to support a theory of Ferrell's films that I first advanced in my review of his last picture, the so-so "Semi-Pro." The Ferrell pictures that he co-writes will always be stronger than the ones he doesn't. Have Ferrell involved in the genesis of a project and it has a much greater chance of being funny than if he's just starring in a film that seems to be in his oeuvre.
However, him receiving a writing credit doesn't guarantee an A picture. "Step Brothers" is about as good as "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights," give or take. They're all funny and worth seeing, however they're not quite at the level of hilarity as a "Superbad," "There's Something About Mary," or "Harold and Kumar." "Step Brothers" is funny and entertaining throughout but I never laughed as frequently as I would have liked or with the intensity that a real A comedy demands.
I was nervous going into the film because I feared that the premise would get stale real quick. It's an "idea film" and the idea is "let's have Ferrell and Reilly act like children!" That fear was, for the most part, kept from realization by the sheer comedic talent of the leads. Because Reilly and Ferrell are so effective, they manage to stretch their premise until it's just about to break. With lesser actors this film would not work. Just as "Hancock" would have failed without Will Smith, a "Step Brothers" starring David Spade and Rob Schneider would have been a torture comparable to water boarding.
After the PG-13s of "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights" it seems as though the team decided to go for some R-rated, gross-out glory. As with "Semi-Pro" the rating is a bit underused. Yes, there's plenty of profanity, though it's not quite as effective as that in "Semi-Pro" where Ferrell's obscenities generated some of the best laughs. And it really doesn't push the gross-out as far as it could. The centerpiece gross-out of the film involves Brennan committing a horrible desecration of Dale's prize possession. It's the biggest laugh of the film and I only wish the filmmakers would have had additional clever, gross-out moments.
For what it's worth the film is thematically a bit more substantive than most of Ferrell's other work. Adulthood does not mean that one must put away childish things. It means that one should take the joys of childhood and convert them into an occupation. The film explores this idea gently, never getting too heavy-handed.
Just as the film is about as funny as its predecessors, it also provides a Ferrell performance on par with the best of the actor's previous work. Ferrell has yet to really give us his masterpiece. The best is yet to come. His man-child and arrogant big shot personas are funny but he has yet to make an A-level comedy.
But I suppose that poses the question: do these kinds of comedic actors really make great comedies? They certainly can pull of good ones but how often do they create something fantastic? Usually comedians have to rein in their personas as Jim Carrey did in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and as Adam Sandler did in "Punch-Drunk Love." However, Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller still managed A-level comedies with "The Nutty Professor" and "There's Something About Mary" without having to tone themselves down.
It's rare but it can happen and while "Step Brothers" isn't quite that movie I'd argue that one of these days Ferrell is going to do it.