THAT’S NOT ROTTEN! The Hidden Maturity of ‘Step Brothers’

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With THAT’S NOT ROTTEN, Sean picks a movie deemed rotten on Rotten Tomatoes and illustrates why it’s better than thought.

It’s safe to say that I find most of Will Ferrell’s lead comedic performances to be on the grating side. He’s a fine comedic actor, yet his tendency to push his performance to self-aware extremes diminishes the humorous content for me. It’s not entirely on Ferrell, however, as most of the supporting players are trying to play on his level. Everything takes on the feeling of a whirlwind of silliness where the numbers of gags that miss take away from the ones that work. With 2008’s Step Brothers, Ferrell along with co-star John C. Reilly and director Adam McKay made their most mature, subdued, and hilarious work to date.

The premise of Step Brothers is rather straightforward. Will Ferrell is Brennan Huff. He is 39, unemployed, and lives with his mother Nancy (Mary Steenburgen). Conversely, John C. Reilly is Dale Doback. He is 40, unemployed, and lives with his father Robert (Richard Jenkins). When their parents meet and get married, the two men trapped in a state of permanent adolescence must figure out how to live together. Part of Step Brothers’ charms is how quickly it gets the set-up of its premise out of the way. From there the film focuses on the attempts of Brennan and Dale to get along, and the collateral damage along the way. But when Brennan’s brother Derek (Adam Scott) comes to visit, he provides Dale and Brennan a common enemy and they quickly become close friends. Of course, the story doesn’t end there as further conflict is introduced that tests the limits of the step brothers’ burgeoning partnership.

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As much as Step Brothers mines humor from the selfish, permanent adolescence of Brennan and Dale, the film as a whole is much more concerned with the effects of their behavior. When their relationship grows stronger, their actions drive a wedge between Nancy and Robert. But Adam McKay and company are smart enough to equally distribute blame among all parties involved. Step Brothers is just as much an indictment against the enablers of permanent adolescence as well those mired in it. Though Brennan and Dale’s behavior is, in many instances, deplorable, the film doesn’t take their parents off the hook for allowing them to get to this point. The inability of either Nancy or Robert to discipline their children when they actually could resulted in their being tethered to their adult children. As much as Robert wants to encourage the two to seek employment, they’ve been fostered in an environment that has left them incapable of being productive members of society.

There’s also this overwhelming denial about the people in their lives that runs through all the film’s main characters. Brennan and Dale don’t want admit that they’re anything but normal people, let alone that their behavior has a negative effect on their parents. Brennan’s brother Derek doesn’t want to realize that he’s stuck in a loveless marriage, even though the signs are right in front of his face. Nancy doesn’t want to admit that her one son is a screw-up and the other a total douchebag. Conversely, Robert realizes the situation, loses his blinders, and drives himself into a depressed drunken stupor. Of course, the one person who sees thing for what they are in this twisted family slowly descends into a resentful rage.

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#BillyJoelSucks

Easily, the funniest moment of the film is when Brennan and Dale go on a series of job interviews set up for them by Robert. Choosing the fanciest suit of Robert’s they could borrow, the duo dress themselves in tuxedos for their multiple interviews. Of course, neither is able to get a job and basically offend every potential employer. This is exemplified by their issues in figuring out the pronunciation and spelling of the name Pam. Within this short sequence, you can see just how well Ferrell and Reilly are at working together. They’re able to amplify their comic energy to the levels of a child throwing a tantrum in a toy aisle and take it down to the child pouting in the corner while on timeout. But the two are so adept at selling these moments by never really playing to the camera – there’s a naturalism to their insanity.

The film concludes by having Robert and Nancy splitting up. Dale and Brennan are also forced to split. Each begins to make their own way and eventually reunite at the Catalina Wine Mixer, a yearly event that is important to Derek’s business. Brennan has hired Uptown Girl, “California’s preeminent 1980s Billy Joel cover band.” When the singer of the band snaps after hearing endless requests for non-‘80s Billy Joel music, Dale and Brennan team up with Dale on drums and Brennan overcoming his fear of rejection and singing. Their rousing performance changes the hearts and minds of their loved one and leads everyone to a happy ending. Any joke built upon the foundation that Billy Joel sucks will win me over every single time.

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The happiest of endings.

Step Brothers will endure the test of time because it is a very funny movie. However, it’s something more because it is so willing to look at its immature characters through the lens of maturity. But it also stands out because of its focus on the causes and consequences of these 40-year-old children. And if a movie ends with two 40-year-old children physically attacking a group of children in order to teach them actions have consequences, it can’t be all bad, right? As a matter of fact, it’s pretty great.

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