Monday, July 28, 2008

Step Brothers

By Elise Nakhnikian

“Genre films essentially ask the audience: ‘Do you still want to believe this?’” wrote film scholar Leo Braudy. “Popularity is the audience answering, ‘Yes.’ Changes in genres occur when the audience says, ‘That’s too infantile a form of what we believe. Show us something more complicated.’”

That “something” may involve parody, stripping a genre back down to its bare essentials, or taking it to an extreme. Think of what’s been happening to horror movies lately, from the affectionate satire of the Scream series to the retro feel of all those zombie movies – including new installments from old master George Romero – to sadistic gorefests like the Saw and Hostel series. Or look at Step Brothers, which both exaggerates and parodies its genre.

Step Brothers is the latest in a long line of American comedies that celebrate arrested adolescence. The heroes of these Peter Pan comedies– and they’re always heroes, not heroines – are youngish men who refuse to grow up. Sure, sometimes they see the light at the end and promise to become responsible adults, but that’s about as convincing as those Hayes Code endings where “bad girls” and criminals paid for their crimes. After they’ve knocked off Jimmy Cagney or sent Barbara Stanwyck to prison, you’re not left thinking about the tacked-on takedown. What sticks is the gutsy rebel’s stardust and spunk.

In Peter Pan movies, our heroes rebel by refusing to grow up. That refusal is seen as a sign of integrity, and they’re richly rewarded for it, winning improbably hot chicks, maintaining airtight friendships, and shutting out the competition in the ultimate American sport: the pursuit of happiness. Audiences show them a lot of love too: Forbes magazine’s 2008 list of the 10 best-paid male actors of the previous year included four – Mike Myers, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, and Adam Sandler – who specialize in Peter Pan roles.

That run of movies has only lasted for five years or so but, thanks to the ever-shortening evolutionary cycle of American pop culture, we’re already ready for something more complicated. And the makers of Step Brothers – who include producer Judd Apatow, the Midas of the Peter Pan genre, and director/cowriter Adam McKay, director of the very funny Talladega Nights – intend to oblige.

The “kids” in Step Brothers – Brennan (Ferrell) and Dale (John C. Reilly) – aren’t just young adults trying to cling to adolescence; they’re solidly middle-aged. At 39 and 40, with receding hairlines and softening stomachs, their impulsiveness, impracticality, dependence on their parents and fierce attachment childish things isn’t just laughable; it’s ludicrous.

These two don’t act like teenagers; they act like grade school kids – totally clueless grade school kids with overactive libidos. And, unlike most of the man-children in Peter Pan movies, whose innocence is paired with a softhearted sweetness, these guys aren’t even likeable, at least not at first: Brennan is a mewling mama’s boy, and Dale is a swaggering parody of manhood who has, as his fed-up father points out, a hair-trigger temper and an utterly unearned sense of entitlement.

The other characters are drawn with a very broad brush. The women, who are typically treated with the awed, somewhat awkward respect accorded one’s first love in Peter Pan movies, are pushed so far into the background this time that they’re barely visible. They’re almost entirely irrelevant too -- except for Brennan’s indispensable mother, Nancy (Mary Steenburgen), the endlessly loving, resignedly tolerant, unthreateningly sexy mother of every boy’s dreams.

Dale and Brennan meet when Nancy marries Dale’s father, Robert (a nicely acerbic Richard Jenkins). Both sons are appalled at the prospect of sharing the parents they’ve been mooching off for all these years, so they engage in an instant sibling-rivalry battle but wind up “best friends for life.”

The filmmakers keep winking at us, to let us know they know we know how ridiculous it all is, but they’re clearly rooting for the “boys” to stay boys – and I’ll be damned if they didn’t bring even me around, and men being boys is not my favorite brand of comedy. Reilly and Ferrell are just too much fun to watch, particularly after they bond with each other and drop the sulking.

Just the way Reilly walks, with a stiff-legged imitation of a macho strut, made me laugh. And when he and Ferrell get going, reigniting the spark they lit as another dumb-buddy pair in Talladega Nights, they come up with wonderfully goofy stuff, like when an awestruck Dale tells Brennan his singing voice is “like a combination of Fergie and Jesus.”

Some of the jokes fall flat, like the noncompliant guide dog that pops up every so often for no apparent reason, but for every bit that fizzles there’s one that pops. Ferrell and Reilly are great at physical comedy, like a bit involving a cobbled-together bunk bed and their flailing fights. And they’re just as good at verbal silliness, like their grandiose plans to start “a huge multinational corporation.” Their job interviews are funny too, though chances are you’ve already seen the best parts in the trailer.

But what makes this movie endearing rather than annoying is the sheer intensity with which they bound around like overripe eight-year-olds. “Can you imagine how cool this would be if we got this when we were 12?” Brennan asks Dale as they try his night-vision goggles.

“Even better,” Dale says, “we get it when we’re 40!”

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