In an alternate, perhaps less amusing universe, Mike Leigh has just directed a film in which two developmentally disabled middle-aged men become stepbrothers, learning to love each other and respect themselves in the process. David Thewlis and Timothy Spall star, and by the end of the movie I want to hug my mother and/or die. But for now we are moored to this version of existence, where the cinema of mental handicaps is typically confined to comedies in which "retarded" is a cheap insult instead of the clinical diagnosis it should be. Thus, Adam McKay has just directed Step Brothers, a film about two mewling, delusional infants trapped in the bodies of Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell) and Dale Doback (John C. Reilly). When their respective single parents get married and merge families, they are forced to share a house, a room and a layabout lifestyle. It's a tad problematic, a mite disturbing and immensely funny.
The touched man-child is a comedy staple. Chaplin, Keaton, Tati and Sellers braided physical grace and a near-autistic inability to comprehend or defend the effects of their actions. The beauty of movement spoke for them, balancing the chaos in their wake and constituting a profound, wordless articulation of empathy. Ferrell and his goofball cabal—Reilly, McKay, Judd Apatow, Steve Carell, Jon Heder, et al.—have perfected a less sophisticated but nearly as transcendent trick: The leading stooges have bodies just as muddled and intractable as the minds inside of them. Watching Elf or Napoleon Dynamite or The 40-Year-Old Virgin can at times feel like flipping through casebooks of neurological disease, but by neglecting to identify the apparent disabilities of their lovable losers, these films successfully (rightly? wrongly?) exploit a repressed urge to laugh at brain-damaged antics. Step Brothers marks the apotheosis of this sly, troubling tactic. It is also the best film Ferrell and company have made since Anchorman.
Excepting some cursory coitus, which plays out like the invention of a new fetish—one that involves commiseration over doofus children as a lubricant—Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins don't have much to do in their parental roles. They simply get out of the way, stand in a corner with logic and reason, and let Brennan and Dale destroy everything around them. The film would work just as well, if not better, with Jackass-style introductions to the inspired carnage: "I'm John C. Reilly, and this is Chewbacca Mask." Or: "I'm Will Ferrell, and this is Homemade Bunkbed." And: "This is Tea-Bag Drumset." Because that's what Step Brothers amounts to: a series of inspired set pieces strung on the barest string of a story that is totally beside the point. In fact, the film suffers when plot intrudes. The first half is a wonder of sheer surreal lunacy, as Brennan and Dale fight and wreak havoc before they become BFFs and wreak more havoc. The formulaic plotting that burdens the last act with soul-searching and reconciliation is like penance for the glorious sins of the first hour, which, if you can get past the fact that this is a comedy about retarded men that is afraid to admit as much, is blissful anarchy.
see IT: Step Brothers is rated R. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Eastport, Cinema 99, City Center, Division, Hilltop, Lloyd Center, Oak Grove, Pioneer PLace, Sandy, Sherwood, Tigard, Vancouver Plaza and Wilsonville.