John C. Reilly has just told his new roommate Will Ferrell that he must never ever touch Reilly's precious drum kit. So as soon as Reilly is out of the house, Ferrell tiptoes into the sanctum, opens his pants and rubs his scrotum on the surface of the snare drum. Taking revenge on a hated rival: it's a moral imperative for great warriors, 8-year-old boys, silverback gorillas and the heroes of modern comedies. Ferrell's nut-job is also about as close as any male character in Step Brothers comes to sexual release.
OK, I surrender. Tell your friends: the grumpy old man finally gets it. After years of arguing and analyzing, I now officially concede that movie comedy is meant to be always and only about men behaving at an IQ and/or age level far below expectations; that movie courtship is a process of stumbling into sex, not the suave negotiation of seduction; and that, after decades when Hollywood offered the likes of Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Steve McQueen were the emblems of masculinity, it now proposes the mentally and emotionally challenged oaf as dreamboat. What woman could look at Ferrell in this scene without salivating, and thinking, "I want to be his snare drum"?
Step Brothers is the latest chapter in Ferrell's exploration of the man who is not nearly as cool as he thinks he is. (That's a figure familiar for decades through Bob Hope and Steve Martin films, and in TV shows like Get Smart.) With a story assist from Reilly, Ferrell wrote the script with Adam McKay, a fellow alumnus of Saturday Night Live and director of two Will winners, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. The new movie also explores the comic notion of man-child that goes back to the silent era (Harry Langdon's basic character was that of a deranged baby) and early talkies (the Three Stooges). But today they're everywhere Ferrell played a pretty endearing one in Elf which leaves the few remaining adult-male comedy roles to George Clooney.
The answer is ingenious and unsettling, which is just fine in an anarcho-sentimentalist comedy. But much of the raillery in Step Brothers seems lazy or desperate. The Ferrell character lacks the goofy appeal of Ricky Bobby or the skater in Blades of Glory. And I'll take the comedy stylings of Jon Heder over Reilly's drabber improvisations any day. (Reilly was way funnier with Ferrell and Jon Stewart on The Daily Show Tuesday night than he is here.) Finally, Ferrell, the Hollywood star most notorious for going naked in his movies, shows off only his belly, and that for a teasing second. For most of the rest of the time, you'll be reveling in, or enduring, one more exhibition of grown men playing children, of idiots destroying things.
The story: Sprightly 60-somethings Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins) and Nancy Huff (Mary Steenburgen) meet at a medical conference and instantly fall in lust. One a widower, the other a divorcée, the two get married and move into his place. The catch is that each of the newlyweds has a wayward, layabout son who's near 40: Dale Doback (Reilly) and Brennan Huff (Ferrell). Seemingly deficient in intelligence, and lacking the most rudimentary of social skills, Dale and Brennan feel hate at first sight as quickly as their parents found love. Their resentment comes from territorial rivalry, but even more the fear that their comfortable situation, of being the sole object of a parent's pampering, is over right now. Learn to share that's the implicit command. Play well with others. Two words: grow up.
In this large suburban home, the lads are forced to share a bedroom. It's the sort of improbability that is waved away in comedy plots. Or maybe it's part of the larger conceit that all narratives are simply the clothes hangers for splendid jokes, most of which are thrown on the closet floor anyway. After a lot of sparring and territory-marking, Brennan and Dale realize they're soulmates, agreeing on nearly everything including which guy they'd want to have sex with if they were a chick. (Together: "John Stamos!") Their parents are still flummoxed by the boys' now-cheerful immaturity Robert and Nancy's sighs are an extended joke on the smiling exasperation of liberal parenting but the Brennan-Dale thing is clearly a match made in kindergarten. The misfits fit.