Was Step Brothers the end of a comedy era?
The summer of 2008 broke history, and rebuilt it. America suffered through a bitter presidential election on the road to a globewrecking financial crisis. In theaters, cinematic generations were rising — and falling. Superheroes, Will Smith, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Emma Stone, Mike Myers, Sisterhoods and Step Brothers, Batman, and ABBA, adaptations of TV shows we still tweet about, new installments of movie franchises studios won’t stop rebooting: everything Hollywood was before, alongside everything it still is.
In our weekly column Two Thousand Late, we’ll explore the big hits and curious flops from a summer that has never really ended. Last week: Batman and the Joker soberly discuss their philosophical conflict. Next week: The Mummy franchise gets made in China. This week: EW film critic Chris Nashawaty and TV critic Darren Franich ponder Step Brothers.
DARREN: Like a total duncecap, I ignored Step Brothers for years. I thought it was a dumb stupid comedy. But I had reasons to be skeptical, Chris! Circa 2008, a lot of movie comedies were man-child bromances, and Will Ferrell seemed to be in a new film every week.
So it was years before I finally watched Step Brothers, and realized that this is a brilliant stupid comedy. The casting is topnotch. Co-writer Ferrell and John C. Reilly exude a pitiful swagger as Brennan and Dale, 40-year-olds who act like 12-year-olds. Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins play the frustrated, unglued parents. (Steenburgen screaming “WHAT THE F—ING F—?” is pure cinema.) Adam Scott seems to conjure every awful idea of self-righteous douchery, “I haven’t had a carb since 2004.” And Kathryn Hahn’s doorway seduction of Reilly is ten flavors of marvelous crazy.
Director/co-writer Adam McKay has an impressively high hit rate for joke-per-minute laughs. There are sight gags (Exploding helicopter ice sculpture!). There are deeply twisted subplots (Brennan and Dale try to, like, KILL each other!). And there are the nonstop throwaway-absurd lines. Existential rock bottom will always sound, to me, like Richard Jenkins declaring: “I’m gonna go down to the Cheesecake Factory, have a drink.”
Does Step Brothers work for you the same way, Chris? Or does this movie let you down, like a Billy Joel Cover Band that only plays the doo-wop material?
CHRIS: Darren, I have to admit, I came to Step Brothers late, too. I mean, I saw it when it came out. But it took me a few more viewings on HBO6 at 1 a.m. to truly see the light like Saul on the road to Damascus.
The best comedies, the ones that really have longevity, seem to work that way. Believe it or not, the same thing happened to me with The Big Lebowski. I liked it just fine the first time around. I loved it the second through forty-sixth times. The weird thing is we seem to be in the minority. The movie opened at No. 2 in the summer of 2008 (right behind The Dark Knight) and well ahead of the X-Files movie, which opened the same week. So I guess the public as quicker on the uptake than you and I. It made $100 million. I repeat $100 million for jokes that barely rise above recess-level humor and somehow are all the funnier because of it. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly have a hammerlock on the doofus man-child archetype in Step Brothers, and while we all knew Ferrell could do this sort of role while sleepwalking (and putting his mom’s handbag in the refrigerator), the real revelation is Reilly, who first hinted at being a glorious idiot in Boogie Nights. I think what makes the movie great — and don’t get me wrong, I still think the second half really drags — is that it somehow is a mainstream movie that feels like a cult movie to the people who love it. That’s a tough trick to pull off. But when you hear someone quoting this movie, you immediately know that they are a kindred spirit — someone you can hang with.
McKay was really on a roll with his buffoon muse, Ferrell, at this point. Step Brothers came right on the heels of Anchorman and Talladega Nights. I still prefer Anchorman to this (“Milk was a bad choice!”), but adding Reilly and Jenkins (the movie’s slow-burn secret weapon) really goosed things up a notch. Oddly, I think that Step Brothers sort of represents the end of something too. It’s no coincidence that McKay followed this up with The Other Guys (a movie that’s not as funny as it thinks it is) and the steep come-down of Anchorman 2 before shifting gears to more heady films like The Big Short and the current HBO series Succession, which I know you don’t love, but I do. Meanwhile, Ferrell would prove shortly after this to be not-so-bulletproof after all with Land of the Lost. I feel like he’s been a bit rudderless ever since. The kind of arrested development, clueless blowhards he specializes in were really a product of the early-to-mid 2000s. It was a great mode of comedy, but I wonder if it became a bit too male, too Hustler-in-the-tree house to keep perpetuating. I’m just spitballing. But I wonder how this movie would be received in 2018. What do you think?
DARREN: You might just be spitballing, Chris. But to me, you sound like a combination of Fergie and Jesus.
Step Brothers is the apex of a now-debased comedy form. White Man-Children Who Totally Heterosexually Love Each Other were all over the 2000s, thanks in no small part to Ferrell and Step Brothers producer Judd Apatow. And because a significant voting minority of Americans decided that a petulant man-child joke should be president, it’s fair to say that this movie would feel outright assaultive if it hit theaters today. Like, the mid-credits sequence of Step Brothers features Ferrell and Reilly beating up a bunch of children. It’s goddamn hilarious, but I dunno, it feels like that kind of aggressively, encroachingly NC-17 comedy has lost favor. I guess we were all making very different jokes ten years ago.
But in fairness, I think McKay and Ferrell were taking this subgenre and exploding it. Dale and Brennan are paragons of modern masculine grotesquerie, all-consuming, negative-producing, demanding everything, giving nothing. They’re siblings to the couch-potato human culture parodied in Wall-E. The deadpan tragedy of their lives — the decades-deep collection of nudie mags, the drum set treated like a holy object — gives the comedy some real teeth.
Actually, that scathing quality pushes Step Brothers way ahead of Anchorman,which I always thought was pretty lame (even before the obviously lame sequel.) Maybe it’s too personal. I knew a fleet of exasperating frat dudes who quoted Ron Burgundy the way Adam Scott quotes Scarface. (Unlike yours truly, an equally exasperating frat dude with, sigh, a Scarface poster on my freshman dorm wall.)
Step Brothers takes an extra step back and to the left: On some level, it’s about the goofs who unironically want to be Ron Burgundy. And with their Return of the Jedi shirts, their wookie masks, and their dinosaur fixation, Dale and Brennan seem like — well, typical adults from 2018, a year whose movie culture has been dominated by conversations about Star Wars 8, Star Wars: A Young Chewbacca Story,and Jurassic Park 5 (so good that it makes Jurassic Park 4 look like Jurassic Park 2!)
You mentioned that you think the second half drags, Chris. Color me intrigued, because for me, the swirling final act is what cements the specialness of Step Brothers. We get to the point — familiar from basically every golden-era Apatow movie — when the overgrown man-children grow into adult domesticity. And then there’s a zigzag into the peak of non sequitur absurdity: The F—ing Catalina Wine Mixer. The cover band! The centaur dream! Ferrell doing his best Andrea Bocelli, backed by Reilly murmuring “Boats and Hos!” as punctuation! Are there bits in the back half that just don’t work for you? And what do you think of the long-discussed possibility of a Step Brothers sequel? I worry that Anchorman 2 and Zoolander 2 have salted the earth for sequelized 2000s bro-comedies. But I have to admit, I’d love to know if Prestige Worldwide became a media conglomerate. Maybe Prestige Worldwide could stage a hostile takeover of Succession‘s Royco!
CHRIS: Ahh, the Catalina Wine Mixer — a fine two-minute joke stretched out to a patience-testing twenty. I guess I sort of find that the movie reaches its peak of absurdity with the Prestige Worldwide presentation and “Boats and Hos” video and just sort of peters out after that, becoming a spot-the-cameo exercise where all of McKay’s and Ferrell’s pals show up in small, unnecessary parts (Rob Riggle, Matt Walsh, Ken Jeong, Seth Rogen, and even McKay himself). That said, Horatio Sanz’s Billy Joel just-the-‘80s cover band is inspired. I guess I don’t find John C. Reilly as dream-sequence Pan as pants-wetting hilarious as you do. Like just about every Judd Apatow produced film (even the better ones), Step Brothers doesn’t know when to wrap it up. His movies are a little too in love with their own jokes. But my beef is minor. It’s mostly a devil’s advocate position.
That said, even if I didn’t already get to see movies for free, I’d giddily fork over my cold, hard-earned cash to see a Step Brothers sequel. A decade-plus is a long time to wait for a sequel, but this is a rare case of a movie that’s probably more beloved now than it was when it came out. I don’t think I’d be alone in the theater watching this thing. I have no doubt that Huff N’ Doback’s Prestige Worldwide has become a hand-over-fist success on all fronts — personal security, exclusive karaoke franchises, corporate branding, you name it. Anyone who could come up with the rhyme “Deadliest Catch, without the crabs/We’re almost out of gas, call the A-rabs” is destined to become either the next Jeff Bezos or, at the very least, the next Eric B. and Rakeem. So, yes, bring it on, please!
Complete Summer 2008 Schedule:
May 2: Iron Man and Made of Honor
May 9: Speed Racer
May 16: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
May 22: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull
May 30: Sex and the City
June 6: Kung Fu Panda
June 13: The Happening
June 20: The Love Guru
June 27: WALL-E
July 2: Hancock
July 11: Hellboy II: The Golden Army
July 18: The Dark Knight
July 25: Step Brothers
Aug. 1: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Aug. 6: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and Pineapple Express
Aug. 13: Tropic Thunder
Aug. 15: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Aug. 22: The House Bunny