2008’s Will Ferrell-John C. Reilly team-up Step Brothers is almost irredeemably stupid and low-brow when viewed again with a decade’s more maturity, and through the more enlightened filter of 2018. Almost irredeemable. So, ten years later, it seems only right to both criticise and celebrate the undeniably successful comedy from Anchorman director Adam McKay.
Step Brothers has a simple enough premise: take the trope of children unwillingly united by a new marriage and replace them with grown men. Physically grown, at least. For the eponymous new step brothers Brennan Huff (Ferrell) and Dale Dobak (Reilly) are both 40-year-old man-children: immature, emotionally stunted, lazy and entitled.
To call this movie an ‘examination’ of masculine identity and privilege would probably be too kind, given it’s essentially a succession of ridiculous and destructive set-pieces; a tornado of idiocy blowing along a paper-thin plot. But the underlying explanation for Brennan and Dale’s behaviour is that pervading, unchallenged sense of self-worth and inevitable success that has grown to be commonplace among white men in America. Despite the gags involving testicles on drum sets, the licking of dog crap and violent sleepwalking, McKay explains that he and co-writer Ferrell “made the movie to examine how American men had been infantilised by consumer culture. I know that sounds super heady, but it was definitely where we [were] coming from.”
That’s all well and good, and if you view the film and its main characters with enough critical thought that stands up. But the main audience demographic for a Ferrell-McKay movie – following Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby – are probably not watching for that. They’ve signed up for two guys hitting each other over the head with cymbals and burying each other alive in the garden – which of course they get.
And while the joke is ostensibly on the men, the representation of women is pretty troubling. Of the three main female characters, none come out brilliantly. Kathryn Hahn, playing the wife of Brennan’s douchebag younger brother, hates her outwardly happy life with him and almost immediately lusts after Dale when he punches her husband. She literally can’t contain her sexual desire for him, leading to some awkwardly funny but actually kinda wrong scenes. Likewise, when Brennan falls for his attractive female therapist (Andrea Savage) and pursues her – but despite the obvious inappropriateness and her clear rejection, he gets the girl at the end!
Mary Steenburgen, as Brennan’s mother Nancy, gets a much meatier role with a new lease of life in her second marriage – but her voice is still silenced by husband Robert (Richard Jenkins) and his insistence that “we agreed” when the parents give the boys an ultimatum about getting jobs and moving out. Throw in a casual rape joke at one point too, and Step Brothers doesn’t hold up too well after #MeToo. It’s a movie very obviously written by guys, about guys, for guys. The women are largely there as plot devices and to base the jokes around.
On the plus side, as a comedy in and of itself there are some admittedly great moments. The infamous ‘Boats ‘N Hoes’ music video scene acts as a genuine commentary on the ridiculousness of their perceived talents as musicians and businessmen, and their operatic finale to save the day at the Catalina wine mixer is very funny. Adam Scott also steals plenty of scenes as uber-asshole Derek, the epitome of the over-achieving white guy barrelling through life on a wave of pure arrogance. While not on the same quotability level as Anchorman or even Talladega Nights, the heavily-improv’d scenes between Ferrell and Reilly also provide some of the biggest chuckles. After the two worked together in a similar friends/rivals scenario in 2006’s Nascar-based hit, the two stars and their director basically decided to take that bottled lightning and unleash it in the more enclosed setting of one household.
While gaining a little sensitivity and heart towards the end, and trying to push the message that Brennan and Dale need to grow up and take responsibility, McKay’s film remains a bit too reverential of its man-child anti-heroes. Produced by Judd Apatow, it could have benefitted from some of the surprising poignancy he brought to The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. In each case, the female leads are written more sensitively and given more independence to impact positively on their respectively inept male protagonists. Supporting characters and side plots also help create a more rounded, nuanced story. Clearly that wasn’t the intention this time. However, dialling down the madness and creating heftier emotional beats may have turned Step Brothers from poor relation into a more welcome member of the modern comedy family.