I am firmly of the belief that a good review should inform the reader of what kind of experience to expect. It should help people choose which films/cds etc to spend their hard earned money on and allow them to waste as little of their precious time sitting through ill suited stories/sounds and the like. We each have our own predilections, likes and dislikes, bugbears, unfathomable annoyances, favourite genres and unquantifiable loves when it comes to different forms of media. However, the good review should outline whether something should fall within your sphere of preferability without nitpicking for the sake of it, or holding a product, that is obviously aimed at a completely different demographic, up to the sort of unnecessarily scrutinous standards that are reserved for the critique of already established classics of the field. Thus reviewing must be subjective to a certain extent and there remains no type of film/TV programme/live show etc where this is more apparent than with the category of comedy.
Other films can at least be analysed frame by frame for the basics of good cinematography. You can have a lively discussion with friend s about whether the pacing of the story was even or if the script was tight enough. The one and only criteria by which a comedy is ultimately judged by the individual is; did it make me laugh? It's an all too simplistic box to tick when compared to the yardstick by which other films are judged, but one that is frequently left empty by many of us.
I apologise for the preamble but I felt it necessary to set my stall out up front and prepare my defences for the verdict (my verdict I hasten to add) I am about to present to you.
“Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream” - George W. Bush
“Step Brothers” comes to us from the same team that was behind “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (2006), being written by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay and also directed by McKay. It also starred both of our leads here; comedic stalwart Ferrell alongside the ever dependable John C Reilly. As such the aforementioned film can be considered very much a litmus test of whether you will find this outing to your liking or not. The talents of Ferrell have long been established in the comedy world, going all the way back to his early work on “Saturday Night Live” alongside many other comedians who have since graduated from that omnipresent US show. Whilst many, such as Ferrell, tend to start in comedy and eventually branch out to more serious roles (Carey, Martin etc) John C. Reilly has seen fit to go about things the opposite way, having made numerous lighter laugh-alongs in recent years. It may even seem a little odd considering his body of work contains such names as Brian De Palma - “Casualties of War” (1989), Terrence Malick - “The Thin Red Line” (1998), three teamings with Paul Thomas Anderson - “Hard Eight” (1996), “Boogie Nights” (1998) and “Magnolia” (1999), plus a further two with Martin Scorsese - “Gangs of New York” (2002) and “The Aviator” (2004), as well as many other outstanding films in between such as “The Perfect Storm” (2000) and “The Hours” (2002). The past two years though have seen him move into these somewhat shallower waters as he's been honing his funny man skills in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (2006), “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” (2007) and “The Promotion” alongside this very film, both released in 2008.
It may come as quite a shock to some, witnessing just how good Reilly is at jocular roles. He has an everyman face (though he admits in the commentary that he dislikes watching himself on screen as he believes himself to resemble the CGI monstrosity Shrek - a remark not too far from the truth in all honesty) and a distinct deadpan delivery that make his performances all the more amusing. Here he is well balanced by Ferrell, who perhaps has the slightly larger role, being that it is somewhat more fleshed out having a back story that drives the film. Talking of which, the plot (what little there is or one might argue there even needs to be) consists of our two protagonists, Brennan Huff and Dale Doback (played by Ferrell and Reilly respectively), haplessly meandering through life as forty year old children. They are men who have never grown up, each leeching off their respective sole parent. That is, until said parents meet, marry and move in together throwing our two vulgar Peter Pans into a whirlwind where their worlds collide. Thankfully the romance between the parents is nothing more than a three minute rush that appears to simply set the ball rolling on what must be considered the main thrust of the movie - that of the two step brother's highjinx. This film plays very much to its strengths in that no time is needlessly wasted on plot development that doesn't literally have to be. Some might argue that this leaves proceedings feeling a tad devoid of the type of genuine warmth that was apparent in more high profile absurd modern comedies such as the Farrelly brother's 1998 smash hit “There's Something About Mary” or the Adam Sandler musical romcom “The Wedding Singer” (also 1998) and to a degree they'd be right. This doesn't engender quite the same feel good experience and one of the primary reasons behind that is the complete lack of a romantic angle.
So we are left asking “where is the soul of this film?” Well to put it bluntly there is scant little argument to be made that this has any kind of real moral behind it. The characters are two dimensional and for the most part you'll probably find yourself shouting at them as much as laughing at them. The point is that these are not characters to be looked up to or agreed with, they inhabit this world purely for comedic reasons, and the most basic of them at that. There aren't any high brow musings on the nature of what it is to be a man, merely set ups for gags that coincide with the story. At times it can feel almost like a sketch show as it clearly has many scenes that are strung together solely for the purpose of a single joke.
Having said all that I can, with hand on heart, say that I haven't laughed as hard at a scene in a film for a long time. The farce flies thick and fast and is as much hit as miss but when one of those hits had me in stitches, I consider that a comedy well worth watching. It helps that I'm a fan of both actors and find it easy to laugh at their antics but that isn't the sole reason behind my enjoyment. It may not be a love story but it does have a pay off at the end and there is a quasi moral for all those boys who never grew up, it just doesn't make too much sense when scrutinised. This wasn't supposed to be a story with a rich filling, it was aimed at the lowest common denominator and, when it comes to comedy, I'll gladly put my hand up and admit to being part of that club. I've read reviews criticising “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” (2004), another Ferrell/McKay film, of being a single sketch that can't last 90 minutes, yet it is one of my favourite films. I found myself admiring rather than looking down upon the brother's strange taste in t-shirts (Yoda, Charlie Brown etc), rather seeing them as ironic. I would have a samurai sword autographed by Randy Jackson and I made a mental note when I heard the term “ball-fro”. I would also love a drum set (referred to as the beat factory by Reilly) and do regularly pull similar moves when playing Guitar Hero. Thus perhaps I was quite literally their target market and I'm not in the slightest bit ashamed to admit it.
In closing, for all the moments that fall flat, there are at least a couple more that will tickle your funny bone and, if like me, you find simple fart jokes (the look on Reilly's face is something to behold), grown men beating up children (they are bullies I might add before anyone complains), two middle aged men starring in their own rap video entitled “Boats and Hoes” and a forty year old adult being forced to lick white dog poo then you'll probably have found your spiritual home with this film. It starts out confrontational, moves through absurdity and ends up vaguely endearing but all the while it never ceased to keep me chuckling. As I said at the beginning, the only true test of a comedy is “does it make you laugh?” and this one did so for me in spades. It may not be to everyone's taste but for those who know the work of Ferrell/McKay and don't mind a spot of vulgarity, this will no doubt be right up your street. Enjoy!
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