Seesawing from the gleefully stupid to the desperately stupid, “Step Brothers” is an indicator that the Judd Apatow juggernaut — which often includes star Will Ferrell and helmer Adam McKay (“Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights”) — has made one too many trips to the well. With Ferrell and John C. Reilly trying to outdo each other in impersonating self-absorbed, middle-aged 6-year-olds, the film is funny at times but lapses into the reflexive vulgarity that seems to be the default mechanism of the Apatow machinery. However, the Sony late-summer entry should enjoy a decent opening.
Despite the comedy, “Step Brothers” has a rather tragic subtext: Two accomplished professionals, Nancy Huff and Robert Doback (a wonderful pairing, Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins) discover the kind of passionate love at first sight that’s normally the purview of movie teenagers. They’re wildly attracted to each other, and have a lot in common — including 40-year-old sons who still live at home.
How did these two nice people raise two cretins? Some questions have no answers. Despite a few promising gestures in the general direction of wit, the comedy quickly becomes an exercise in antics that wouldn’t even qualify as adolescent. The core of the humor in “Step Brothers” — as it is in many Ferrell vehicles — is all about a grown man acting juvenile. If Nancy’s son, Brennan (Ferrell), were still going to school, he’d be riding an abbreviated yellow bus.
Likewise, Robert’s son, Dale (Reilly), dropped out of college to join the family business — despite being told repeatedly by his physician father that Dale would need to be a doctor to do so. When Brennan moves into the Doback house and Dale refuses to move the inevitable drum set out of the one spare room, the two are forced to bunk together, becoming antagonists and fellow sleepwalkers. The first time they somnambulate together and trash their parents’ house is hilarious — not so much the second time. And almost everything in “Step Brothers” is done a second time.
Pic boasts an unpredictable element, in that you never know what the two brothers are going to say. (The script is by Ferrell and McKay, but much of what Ferrell and Reilly blurt out seems ad-libbed.) On the other hand, it’s predictable in the way it brings two enemies together — mutual hatred of Brennan’s overachieving, insufferable younger brother Derek (Adam Scott) plays a part — and redeems them as semi-solid citizens.
To be fair, the unrelenting imbecility of Dale and Brennan generates a certain affection. There’s something going on in society that has to explain the popularity (and proliferation) of movies in which men play boys, such as Apatow productions “Knocked Up” and “Superbad.” There’s probably some deep answer to all this, but don’t ask Dale or Brennan. One will look at you blankly. The other will make armpit farts.