I imagine that, when Will Ferrell set out to pen the screenplay for “Step Brothers” with director Adam McKay, he sat around in his underwear, surrounded by old beer cans and nachos threatening to spawn new bacterial life, and simply thought about how life could have turned out had he not stumbled upon stardom.
Brennan Huff, the Will Ferrell of this other dimension, is a 39-year-old slacker who cannot hold down a job, lives with his enabling mother and is in all respects still a petulant and immature teenager. When his mother (Mary Steenburgen) marries Dr. Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins), Huff meets his equal in the similarly leeching and stunted 40-year-old Dale Doback (John C. Reilly).
Resentful of their parents' decision to move in together, Dale and Brennan feud as only two infantile teenagers can: They passively taunt, underhandedly prank and, at one point, testicles are involved. But slowly, through the discovery of a shared love for John Stamos and shared hate for Brennan's insufferable younger brother Derek (Adam Scott), the two embrace their stepbrother bond and become best friends.
The comedic chemistry between Ferrell and Reilly is given free reign as they use crass language, bathroom humor and slapstick physical comedy to entertain both each other and the audience.
There are also a few utterly hilarious moments that are more subtle, such as when Brennan (who dubs himself the “songbird of this generation”) belts out Bonnie Raitt's “Something to Talk About” to an enraptured Dale. Even more notable is Brennan's show-stopping rendition of Andrea Bocelli's “Por Ti Volare,” accompanied by Dale on the drums. It is actually so impressive that, at its climax, you are tempted to clap and cheer out of respect.
The humor hits home every now and then. No, Ferrell has not broken with his signature style and started acting, but the slight believability of the plot puts “Step Brothers” a few steps above “Semi-Pro” and “Blades of Glory.”
On the other hand, while the partnership with Reilly helps temper Ferrell's self-indulgent flair and breaks up the predictability of his character, there aren't enough strong one-liners or scene-stealing cameos to make it the equal of “Anchorman” or “Talladega Nights.”
In its attempt to instill some poignancy and strength in the plot, “Step Brothers” lands somewhere between plotless comedy classic and respectable comedic drama. The shift for Ferrell, who has always aimed for the first, can probably be attributed to producer Judd Apatow.
Armed with sidekick Seth Rogan (who has a cameo here) and his knack for producing hilarious, well-rounded comedies, Apatow's touch can be best seen in how the humor is used to feed into the ultimate larger theme.
As with his recent blockbuster hits, when you laugh, it'll be out of sheer awkwardness or because of the amusement of the 15-year-old kid alive inside you. There's no wit involved, but that's not to say you should be ashamed.
The whole movie is actually all about embracing that awkward teenager. You know, the one who yearns for industrial-strength night vision goggles and loves hiding out in the backyard treehouse.
Although Ferrell explores a life where Brennan is able to stay irresponsible and carefree until his 40s, he ultimately realizes he needs to grow up, but in a way that preserves the essence of that inner adolescent. In the end, “Step Brothers” is a feel-good coming-of-age story adapted for the really late bloomers.