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Review: “Step Brothers” (2008)

There will be two distinct reactions to Adam McKay’s “Step Brothers”: the guffaws of people who think two 40-something men acting like prepubescent boys is hysterical and the horrified silence of those who think that’s painfully idiotic. Anyone who belongs to the latter camp should not see “Step Brothers,” which delights in juvenile humor — the juvenile-er, the better. This is a movie where a pre-teen bully opens a full can of whoop-ass on the 6’3″ Will Ferrell, then makes him eat a petrified dog turd.

If your heart leapt at “petrified dog turd,” read on, kindred spirit. “Step Brothers” is a smörgåsbord for fans of scatalogical/penis/fart humor, all-out absurdity, inventive one-liners like “Holy Santa Claus shit!” and wild pratfalls. That’s because of the magic that happens when Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly show up on the same set. There have been a few genuinely great comic duos in history, and Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly are one of them. Apart, they’re certainly capable comedians, but together? Together they’re a lit stick of TNT. Bank on an explosion; just don’t think you can predict when it will happen or what the fallout will be. It’s that element of surprise that makes Reilly and Ferrell so very good together.

Toss some funny actors like Rob Riggle and Richard Jenkins into that mix, and that’s a recipe for one cookie sheet full of great comedy. Dale (Reilly), who lives with his widowed father Robert (Jenkins) and Brennan Huff (Ferrell), still crashing at his mother Nancy’s (Mary Steenburgen) house, are two adults living the carefree lives of 9-year-old boys. They are a pair of jobless freeloaders united, suddenly and unhappily, by their parents’ marriage. Forced to live in the same house (and, to maximize awkwardness, the same bedroom), Dale and Brennan strike up a hellacious and raucous rivalry. Dale calls Brennan and his mom “hillbillies”; Brennan threatens to fill a pillowcase with bars of soap and beat Dale senseless; and down it spirals from there. All the hatred comes to a head when Brennan tea-bags Dale’s prized drumset, culimating in a fierce brawl and the priceless moment where Steenburgen lets loose a string of F-words. Eventually Dale and Brennan form a fragile alliance, mostly in opposition of their parents’ insistence that they find jobs and move out. Ferrell and Reilly’s inventive job interview sabotage — wearing tuxedoes; farting loudly; arguing over the correct pronunciation of “Pam” with one interviewer — are some of the funniest in the movie.

Since “Step Brothers” follows a somewhat traditional romantic comedy (or bromance, more like) storyline, Dale and Brennan’s bond must be broken so they can be reunited. One of the dividing forces is Derek “I Haven’t Had a Carb Since 2004” Huff (Adam Scott), Brennan’s rich and insufferable brother. He’s determined to sell Robert and Nancy’s house so they can retire early, and he’s plainly delighted when Brennan and Dale turn on each other. (This is the kind of brother who’d interrupt your solo at the high school talent competition to announce that you have “a mangina,” then win it by lip-synching “Ice Ice Baby.”) Scott is but one of many side-splitting parts of this crackerjack ensemble cast. Riggle is another, stealing scenes left and right as Derek’s beserk right-hand “POW!” man Randy. Jenkins, a terrific character actor, gets to run amok of his usual sedate roles with physical comedy, and he has a fine time doing it. Kathryn Hahn is kooky and chuckle-worthy as Alice, Derek’s resentful wife who puts Dale squarely in the crosshairs of her lunacy. She wants to roll Dale in a little ball and shove him up her vagina. “No” means nothing to Alice; in another life, she was likely a rapist. 

In spite of all the hijinks, though, “Step Brothers” has an undercurrent of poignancy that might catch the observant off guard. It’s subtle, but it’s there. Dale and Brennan may be the poster children for arrested development, but their childlike refusal to give up on their crazy dreams is endearing. And let’s just say that it takes a special gift to make two grown men beating up a jeering kid bully seem like a triumph worth cheering for.

Grade: B+

Review: “The Vicious Kind” (2009)

“All women are whores.” Caleb (Adam Scott) is not a man to avoid making gross generalizations about women — even after his younger brother, Peter (Alex Frost), tells him he’s met his first love. Especially not then. Sleep deprivation has made Caleb unpredictable, but it’s his recent heartbreak that’s made him such a bitter, vicious opponent of love, or anything that looks like it. He tells his hooker she probably was molested as a child. He is hatred personified.

This bottomless pit of rage and bile, of course, makes Caleb a fascinating person to watch. He’s not at all likable, at least not at first, but because he is so damaged and volatile it’s impossible to predict his next move. He must seem an even bigger boon to an actor like Scott, who has paid his dues playing various thankless parts (the jerk older brother in “Step Brothers,” a sleazy teacher in an episode of “Veronica Mars,” a male nurse in “Knocked Up”). Even though “The Vicious Kind” is an independent film, this is a plum role, one that requires an enormous amount of versatility because Caleb has to be both hateful and congenial, both mean and well-intentioned. Scott, through sheer force of mostly untapped talent, deftly juggles all these aspects of Caleb’s personality. He spews convincing diatribes about the opposite sex while seeming as though, on some level, he doesn’t really believe every word he says.

Hard cases like Caleb usually come from families repressing a mess of secrets. As expected, “The Vicious Kind” operates on a familiar but effective formula: Take a family unit mired in secrets and petty grievances, introduce a newcomer who knows nothing about this messy history and let the squirming begin. This approach has worked in similar indie family dramas, including “Junebug” and the lesser-known “Dreamland,” and it works here too because of the strong cast of performers. (The film, however, does veer perilously close to weepy melodrama at points.) The interloper in the case of “The Vicious Kind” is Emma (Brittany Snow), the slightly mysterious girl Peter brings home for Thanksgiving. Caleb, who gives the couple a ride home, is flustered by Emma, who resembles his ex-girlfriend. He does not expect to see her again because he won’t be at Thanksgiving; he hasn’t spoken to his father, Donald (J.K. Simmons), in years. Then Caleb starts popping up unexpectedly wherever Emma is, his behavior ranging from scary (he verbally assaults her at the grocery store) to bizarre (he lunges across the diner table to kiss her while Peter’s in the bathroom). She agrees to hide this from Peter, but it might not be out of love; it could have something to do with her growing attraction to Caleb … which Donald silently notices. Simmons is aces at silently noticing things.

Krieger’s script never makes it clear if Caleb and Emma’s attraction is genuine or based on a shared love of chaos and making things harder than they have to be. Both characters are suppressing walk-in closets full of demons; the tricky part is that Emma only hints at hers. Snow doesn’t have the luxury of shouting matches or raving tangents. She must communicate her feelings — sadness, anxiety, lust, fear — in very small ways. The character is somewhat underwritten, but she’s certainly not unnecessary. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite: without Emma, Caleb would not face up to the truth about his father’s break-up with his mother; Donald would not muster the gumption to make amends with his estranged son; Peter would not know the exuberance and exquisite pain of first love. There would be no story without Emma, so Snow, however unassuming, is vital. So is Frost, whose Peter is the figurative innocent Donald and Caleb go to great lengths to protect — from pain, sadness, life. His naiveté is a nice contrast to Simmons’ silent wisdom and Scotts’ volcanic tantrums. Peter is the one who leaves home at the movie’s conclusion completely misguided about what has taken place. He’s not unlike Ben Braddock in his misunderstanding of his girlfriend’s reaction during the final moments of the film. His innocence is both the ultimate triumph and tragedy of “The Vicious Kind.”

Grade: B+