Recently Rented Reviews: Step Brothers

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(This is the first entry in a new feature where I review things I’ve recently rented, regardless of their actual release date, because I don’t care about timeliness or America or the future of cinema or whatever.  Welcome!)

Stepbrothers

Directed by: Adam McKay

Written by: Adam McKay, Will Ferrell

Produced by: (among others, but he’s the important one) Judd Apatow

Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Mary Steenburgen, Richard Jenkins, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn

Release date: July 2008

Step Brothers is better than it has any right to be.  It’s lazy; it coasts on the charm of its amazing cast; there’s no plot to speak of; the direction is journeyman-like and self-indulgent.  Yet I can honestly say that I’m pretty sure that this critical and commercial failure is actually funnier than the over-adored Pineapple Express.

One reason for this is that, line by line, Stepbrothers is a funnier movie.  While Pineapple’s James Franco and Danny McBride were pretty quotable, one often had the sense that that film’s best lines were actually being improvised by those two gifted actors.  Maybe that’s just called “acting,” but, given the improvisational nature of most Apatow ventures, it’s not an entirely unrealistic assumption.  In Pineapple Express, Franco and McBride are the only consistently funny characters; in Step Brothers, everybody is, for which I finger GOOD WRITING as the culprit.

But who are these characters?  It’s pretty simple – Step Brothers’ plot is gossamer-thin.  It’s basically The Parent Trap, except with 40-ish homeschool nerds (Reilly and Farrell) in the Hayley Mills role.  Steenburgen and Jenkins play the parents, Scott plays the brother, and Kathryn Hahn plays his wife/Reilly’s love interest.

This simplicity is the film’s strength – it allows Reilly, Farrell, and the other actors to riff.  Reilly and Farrell are both very good here – childlike, reactive, and possessive of a definite chemistry.  Their relationship follows rom-com-like conventions – they meet and loathe each other at first sight; gradually win each other over; fall out of love, and then . . . well, let’s just say there’s a happy ending.

The real revelation here, however, is Adam Scott as Farrell’s obnoxious brother Derek.  Scott stars on the Starz series Party Down – a very funny, very improvised show about caterers, on which he plays the straight man.  I’d thought he was the series’ weak link – and surrounded by heavy hitters like Jane Lynch, Ken Marino, and Lizzy Caplan, who can blame me? – but it turns out that Scott is a deliciously funny character actor.  On Party Down, he has to play the straight center around which the action swirls, but in Stepbrothers, he’s allowed to douche about to his heart’s content, and he’s awesome at it!  His opening scene, forcing his family through an a capella rendition of “Sweet Child of Mine,” is freshly, wrenchingly funny.  My boyfriend and I gasped after it, wondering what, exactly, we had just seen.

What’s my point?  Step Brothers is awesome.  It’s not an ambitious movie, but it more than meets its quota.  Extremely rentable.

Grade: B+

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