Once a month, RollingStone.com will shine a spotlight on a forgotten, neglected, overshadowed, underappreciated and/or critically maligned film that we love in a new series we’re calling “Be Kind, Rewind.” Our inaugural movie: Step Brothers.
When you’re a kid, adults are great at telling you what happens when you grow up. You get a job, you find a partner, you make a home — simple. What no one ever addresses is how much that all sounds like a bunch of bullshit. Compared to, say, doing karate in the garage, going to work might as well be torture. On top of that, you’re supposed to use whatever money you earn to prudently buy stuff that can barely be construed as a toy. And you’re supposed to find someone to share a life with? Why? How?
So from the vantage point of a 12-year-old, adulthood is something best avoided. The key question, then, is how long can you run?
For Step Brothers‘ Brennan Huff and Dale Doback, the answer, respectively, is until the ages of 39 and 40. As played by Will Ferrell (Brennan) and John C. Reilly (Dale), those two, through a toxic and hilarious combination of stupid-like-a-fox wit, tenacity, manipulative genius, parental enabling and a truly shocking level of an innate emotional retardation, have managed to take a steaming dump on the notion of growing up. Peter Pan has nothing on them.
Watching the movie now, six years after its unheralded release, Step Brothers, co-written and directed by frequent Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay, looks more and more like the funniest movie of the 21st century, and also the most accurate about the anarchy of adolescence. Compare it with say, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. The latter, lovely as it may be, is measured and sensitive, rendering the messiness of maturation with a calm hand and a steady gaze. Step Brothers, about the rivalry, subsequent camaraderie, and slight maturation of two man-child morons, is foul, sloppy, giddy, angry, obsessed with pain and penises — I know which one reminds me more of being a boy. Kids smash watermelons. They hog fancy sauce (ketchup + mayonnaise). They wear Chewbacca masks. They’re each others’ mortal enemies one day and treehouse buddies the next. That Dale and Brennan, playing overgrown brats forced to co-exist when their parents get married (Mary Steenburgen plays Brennan’s mom; Richard Jenkins is Dale’s dad) are paunchy middle-aged men doesn’t make their childhood feelings any less true, or terrifying. A huge heap of growing up is a muddled disaster, and if Step Brothers were played exactly the same, but with kids cast in the lead roles rather than two hairy olds, it’d scan as a psychologically astute horror movie.
But it’s a comedy, because kids don’t play Brennan and Dale. Ferrell and Reilly do, and they are incredible. When Ferrell has gone for drama, as in Stranger Than Fiction or Everything Must Go, he plays self-preservation and doubt as small and insular. As Brennan, he’s accessing similar anxieties, but he lashes out instead of bottles up. He calls his mom “fucking high” when she tells him no more TV. He smears his sack on Dale’s treasured drumkit. He tells self-aggrandizing lies as a matter of course. (“I smoked pot with Johnny Hopkins.”) Funny or straight, Ferrell always plays a guy responding to being overwhelmed by adult responsibility. In Step Brothers, finally, logically, he played a man who was, sorta literally, a child. He’s never been more alive on screen.
If Ferrell’s performance is a loud whoopee-cushion ripper of a fart, Reilly’s is a silent-but-deadly that sneaks up and stings the nostrils. His magic is in the little details — his exaggerated swagger as he’s walking around in his underoos, asking his dad what to do if his new step-mom grabs his weiner, his shining look of expectation when he asks his other step-brother (sales-douche Derek, played by Adam Scott) if bonito fish are big. Or the blissful confusion in his eyes when Derek’s sexually smitten wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) says she wants to roll Dale into a ball and stuff him in her vagina. Whether they’re braining each other with bicycles or jointly delivering wildly incompetent investor pitches (there’s a materialism critique hidden among Step Brothers’ camel dick jokes), both Ferrell and Reilly root their characters in relatable behavior. These are blustering idiots. Though we like to idealize the intelligence and innocence of childhood, a lot of the time, kids behave like blustering idiots.
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That specificity is why Step Brothers delivers more and truer laughs than any other Ferrell-McKay movie, and also why it lingers. The duo’s other efforts are extended riffs on cultural stereotypes — Southerners and NASCAR fans (Talladega Nights), Seventies culture (Anchorman), buddy cop movies (The Other Guys). They’re are about cartoons. Step Brothers is about human beings.
Okay, enough. The Bar Mitzvah-age me would’ve gotten way bored by the analysis and left for a porn site by now. Any arguments about Step Brothers would fizzle if the movie wasn’t insanely funny, and I can’t explain funny. I can only remind those of you who have seen it, and offer a humble smorgasbord for those of you who haven’t: Boats ‘N Hoes. Pow! “You Make My Dreams Come True.” The songbird of a generation. The fucking Catalina wine mixer.
The movie has its problems. The narrative lurches forward, with subplots that fizzle and gags that flop. The women characters, despite the actresses’ fine work, are props. Seth Rogen’s cameo is jammed in, and Derek’s use of the slur “faggot” sounded tin-eared and wrong in 2008 — and only sounds worse as time goes by. So Step Brothers is imperfect. It’s also raunchy and real and as Kanye West knows, a little wise. So watch it. Or watch it again. It’s good for your dinosaur.