For a decade or so, funny guy Will Ferrell has been filling cineplex screens with over the top roles that have generously gifted belly laughs and catchphrases to the world. While one might consider the bulk of his work to be all light, feel-good entertainment of the Elf or Old School ilk, a deconstruction of his 2008 vehicle Step Brothers reveals that it almost verges on a think piece. Step Brothers co-stars Ferrell with Academy Award winner John C. Reilly, the pair refining their chemistry from their previous outing Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby to sublime effect. And as Ferrell’s third film with Anchorman director and fellow “Saturday Night Live” alum Adam McKay, the ensemble delivers its vision with the fluidity of a traveling orchestra. There are plenty of good things to say about the movie at face value, but its overlooked and subtle indictment of a nostalgia-obsessed generation makes it criminally underrated.
The film follows reluctant man-children Dale Doback (Reilly) and Brennan Huff (Ferrell), two stay-at-home, emotionally underdeveloped middle-aged men who have to cope with suddenly becoming siblings. While the film does come through on the promise of madcap insanity between the two, it’s the execution that reveals its unlikely depth. Released in the summer of 2008 at the height of a recent boom in nostalgia-based pop culture – one that saw VH1 so eager to look back that they produced an “I Love the New Millennium” special two years before the decade was even over – the film frames Dale and Brennan as exaggerated versions of what media obsessed young adults had become. Chasing new gadgets and distractions, the pair have allowed themselves to age without really growing up. They love playing with movie memorabilia, have an emotional attachment to decades-old pornography and let their interests define them to the point of territorial confrontation.
Now, given all this, at a time when adults can and do buy DVD releases of their favorite children’s shows’ entire runs or spend hours revisiting old commercials on a whim, the protagonists might seem almost enviable as Peter Pan figures in the Neverland of the 21st century. But truly Dale and Brennan stand as the realized dream of twenty-somethings bent on living a second childhood. They’re two men who made it halfway through their lives without having to yearn for days past because they’ve never left them behind. When Brennan’s miserable sister-in-law pulls Dale aside and attempts to seduce him after he punches her domineering husband, her dirty talk conjures up fairy tale imagery as she divulges fantasies to him with childlike wonder. She finds arousal in vicariously visiting a simpler time through him, as if it could be bridged by asking him to come out and play.
Of course, this critique wouldn’t be anywhere near as scathing or satisfying had the two found themselves on the standard Hollywood route of realizing their mistakes, letting go of their pasts and moving on like Steve Carell’s character in The 40 Year Old Virgin. What makes Step Brothers wonderfully twisted is that producer Judd Apatow’s trademark “Everything’s going to be all right for these goofs” finale is warped almost to the point of being unsettling. While Brennan and Dale’s parents eventually accept them for who they are, the trope is turned on its ear – because they really, really shouldn’t. It’s bad enough Dale’s father (Richard Jenkins) is letting the boys use his beloved boat they destroyed as their new treehouse, but they’re doing so at age 40. Not once does the movie create a reality where logic would dictate that their parents reject this behavior; rather we see our entire cast unpack their stunted developments to find joy in letting the two live their dream. The layers of wrong at work here are probably best captured by Brennan’s therapist telling his mother (Mary Steenburgen) she’s an enabler, and she responds with “and you’re a keeper!”
But that’s not to say there isn’t an underlying commentary on the standard American dream story as well; Brennan’s brother Derek (Adam Scott) is a tremendous success with a family and job that seems normal on the surface, only to show it’s his penchant for unrelenting cruelty that’s made him a success. Dale’s dad is also a loose cannon of emotion made bitter from harboring a lifetime of resentment, and Brennan’s mom is, as pointed out earlier, a post-Politically Correct ‘90s “don’t let kids feel bad” enabler. They, too, are susceptible to nostalgia’s pitfalls, most memorably when we are introduced to Derek’s family as they’re forced through emotional torment to recreate a pitch-perfect a cappella rendition of Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” in the car, narrowly escaping a car collision in the process. Even the background players send-up this obsession with the past, my personal favorite of which being an ‘80s Billy Joel cover band that only plays mid-‘80s doo-wop era Billy Joel. By working both on the level of a quote-fest as well as a secretly smart send-up of a generation refusing to get old in the worst way possible, Adam McKay’s Step Brothers is underappreciated – like the subtle joys of adulthood (not).