Judd Apatow should be a very thankful man at this point. His success within the past year with films like Pineapple Express, Superbad and Knocked Up has given him the creative freedom to be behind whatever comes his way. The audiences keep coming back for more, and the money keeps rolling in. What Apatow et al need to look out for is that the quality of their comedy is not lost by churning out so much in a short time period. Drillbit Taylor and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story were victims, with worldwide box office takings of $50million and $21million respectively faring poorly to the likes of Superbad’s $170million. Step Brothers has so far fared better – but the drawing card of Will Ferrell has much to do with it.
It surrounds the story of two 40-year-old men (a now recurrent Apatow theme after The 40 Year Old Virgin) who become step-brothers after their parents marry and move in together. Both haven’t left home and are dissatisfied with the arrangement because life was great before. It’s a scenario which is common within society, and writer-director Adam McKay plays on this with an interesting twist by using older subjects. We see the general story arc of contentment/problem/solution with a few turns along the way as we see Ferrell’s Brennan and John C. Reilly’s Dale’s initial hatred, their eventual blossoming friendship and the issues they face concerning real jobs. This has fast become the quintessential Apatow archetype; men who sit on their arses contemplating what they should really do with their lives but are in no way motivated to change anything. His production influence is obviously rubbing off on McKay and Ferrell, who have written a script centred on dim-witted characters and events.
The dim-witted characters are what these comedies thrive on. With each film’s release, we see the same model in different situations that most of us have somewhat experienced. This is certainly in the case of McKay, Ferrell and Apatow, who have worked together on Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy before Step Brothers. The key to understanding these films for what they really are (because believe it or not there is more than meets the eye) lies in understanding that this is what these men know. Drugs, sex and comedy are the most appealing things to a man who has no direction in his life (or more accurately most men full stop) and they play on that in this film through a classic family situation. We all know that suburbia isn’t perfect and to see it portrayed in a comedic way isn’t as common as a dramatic counterpart.
Step Brothers isn’t total trash. While definitely not an Apatow gem, it is the most commercial of his films within the past few months. Mass marketing really can help a film cross the line between moderate and massive success, while the leads involved also help. Reilly is working up his commercial repertoire well, finally getting his time to shine after being enormously underrated, while Ferrell is arguably at his best since Anchorman. There are genuinely funny scenes, particularly one with an argument involving drums and genitalia that screams homage to Sacha Baron Cohen’s infamous fight in Borat. A cameo by Apatow favourite Seth Rogen will always bring a smile, while Mary Steenburgen’s loving yet frustrated mother shows us her strength in comedy.
The crew collaboration flows for the most part, but towards the end the laughs wear thin. That’s not to say Ferrell and Reilly aren’t funny; there are glimpses that show the guys are just as great as they ever were, but the plot just doesn’t hold up for the 98 minutes. Step Brothers is mindless at best, successfully engaging its audience in that regard, but those wanting more will be disappointed by the overall result.
Follow the author Katina Vangopoulos on Twitter.