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+

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My thought on today

No. 43: “Boogie Nights” (1997)

“You know, I’m gonna be a great big, bright shining star.” ~~Dirk Diggler

Watch enough Paul Thomas Anderson films — which won’t take a full day, considering he’s only made five major motion pictures — and a trademark starts to emerge. It’s not the long shots (he’s wonderful with those) or the use of the iris in/out technique (that too). What strikes us, and quite forcefully, is Anderson’s repeated focus on warped, unconventional family dynamics. “Punch Drunk Love” had Barry and his seven wretched sisters; “Magnolia,” the twin stories of Jimmy Gator and Earl Partridge, who slowly poisoned their marriages, their children and themselves. “Boogie Nights” may beat them both, though, in terms of questionable family relationships for its emphasis on a clan of pornographers — actors, directors, producers — who cling to each other out of emotional necessity. Their real families won’t have them; no one else will, either, and so they love the ones they’re with.

This unorthodox sense of togetherness smudges the line between parental love and sexual love, especially in the case of porn stars Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore). Freud could have a field day with the peculiar yet loving relationship these two people have. Unable to see her son, Amber has a hole in her heart she needs to fill with something. Cocaine passes the time, but she needs to be needed. And Dirk, a clueless kid determined to escape his own abusive mother, needs a surrogate.These two are a match made in heaven and also hell — they nurture each other, they fill gaps, but they also have a codependent relationship that’s headed nowhere good. More stable is Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, displaying actual depth and empathy), the porn director with a conscience who discovers Dirk bussing tables at a nightclub. “I got a feeling that behind those jeans is something wonderful just waiting to get out,” Jack observes, and he’s not being crude. Jack Horner is a man with an eye for untapped potential. He’s also a man who wants to help a struggling, uncertain high school dropout make something of himself. He adopts a fatherly attitude toward Dirk, who finds makeshift siblings in fellow actors Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly, all childlike innocence) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham).

Remaining characters trickle in and out much like kooky relatives at a family reunion: Maurice Rodriguez (Luis Guzmán), a nightclub owner/Don Juan in his own mind; Colonel James (Robert Ridgely), Jack’s financial backer with a disturbing, illegal secret; and gay boom operator Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman, agonizingly awkward), besotted with Dirk. There’s assistant director Little Bill (William H. Macy, brilliant as usual), whose reaction to his porn star wife’s (Nina Hartley) infidelity is a game-changer in “Boogie Nights.” Also intriguing is Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), who wants to give up his unfulfilling life of sex on camera, meet his soulmate and open a discount electronics store. Little details like that are the mark of a gifted filmmaker. And one thing Anderson, for all his skills behind the camera, never skimps on is the depth of his characters. He can draw impressive performances from actors — Graham, Reynolds and pre-“Departed” Wahlberg — not known for giving them. Even the characters we get fleeting glimpses of, like Thomas Jane’s arrogant Todd, Philip Baker Hall’s visionless financier Floyd or Alfred Molina’s whacked-out drug dealer, leave indelible impressions. Anderson writes “Boogie Nights” so that every person is concealing a story, and we get just enough of a taste of those stories to want more. Anderson backlights the characters’ tensions with his single takes (he holds when other directors would cave) and exquisite soundtrack choices, proving himself as good at illustrating eras and emotions with songs as Scorsese.

In the long list of thingsAnderson does well, there’s something else to tick off: merging multiple storylines into a satisfying conclusion. His endings are poetry, and the final minutes of “Boogie Nights” — shocking for MPAA in the ’90s, they prompted Reynolds to fire his agent and punch Anderson on set — is no exception. Anderson feels for his characters, and he gives them the kind of bittersweet adieus that sit with us indefinitely. It’s not what we expect, but it’s exactly what we need.

No. 42: “Magnolia” (1999)

“I’ll tell you everything, and you tell me everything, and maybe we can get through all the piss and shit and lies that kill other people.”
~~Claudia Wilson Gator

Epic in length, ambition and raw acting talent, “Magnolia” is not an easy film to break down. This motion picture defies quick summary, and that’s not because of a convoluted plot or characters with mystifying or unknowable motivations. Stripped of the gut-churning, elegaic soundtrack (including Aimee Mann’s devastating, Oscar-nominated “Save Me”), “Magnolia” is film about the most mundane of things: people interacting with other people. Under Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction, though, something so ordinary becomes extraordinary. Where other directors might see banality, he sees a life-affirming symphony of emotion.

In making “Magnolia,” Anderson had a rare opportunity for creative control. He decided to seize that opportunity — a wise move considering that a motion picture this theatrical about plain people might not have gotten made any other way. Making something like “Magnolia” involves a gigantic leap of faith that places an equally gigantic amount of trust in viewers. Could they see beauty in two lonely ne’er-do-wells (John C. Reilly, Melora Walters) bonding over a terrible cup of coffee? Or be moved to tears by the plight of a loser (William H. Macy) who lives so deep in the past he can’t see what’s ahead of him? It’s a risk few directors would take; that’s not Anderon’s way, however, and thank God for that. Anyone with a touch of patience and a willingness to accept coincidences will find much to love about “Magnolia,” which at its core is a meditation on the emotions we feel every day, many times a day: anger, sadness, pain, hope, lust, love, betrayal, jealousy and so much more. It is one of the best films ever made about the human condition.

One of the elements to love about “Magnolia” — not shocking given Anderson’s ability to assemble winning ensemble casts — is the performances. Anderson does not write any part, down to a dying man’s nurse, as one-dimensional. There are unfathomable depths to every character, and every actor finds those depths. Because “Magnolia” relies on the everyone-is-connected-somehow theme, there are no true main characters and no stories that preside over all others. Dying patriarchs Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), however, do stand at the middle. Earl pleads with his caretaker Phil (Hoffman) to find Frank (Tom Cruise, who hits a career high), the son Earl abandoned years ago. Frank, a manipulative slimeball who’s made a career of selling his womanizing strategies to regular guys, wants nothing to do with Earl. He also wants nothing to do with Earl’s trophy wife Linda (a wrenching Julianne Moore), who sublimates her guilt with any sedative she can find. Jimmy’s life is approaching its expiration date, and he cannot reconcile with his daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), a cokehead. An inept, kind-hearted cop named Jim (John C. Reilly, a sweetly floundering Everyman) falls for Claudia when her neighbors file a noise complaint against her. Claudia’s father is on the verge of losing the thing that means most to him in the world: his successful game show “What Do Kids Know?” One of the young stars is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), whose father is pushing the boy right up to the breaking point. Donnie Smith (Macy in top comic-tragic form), former child star of the show, watches Stanley with jealous, knowing eyes. Donnie understands the dangers of peaking so young, and his anguish is plaintive: “I do have love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.”

Macy touches on one of the more important prevailing themes — and a universal human problem — in “Magnolia” with these two sentences of dialogue. These people, all bumbling and stumbling through life, have emotions too big to stuff down. Mann’s aching, weary voice perfectly underscores this plight, and Anderson’s tracking shot in the quiz show sequence builds the tension to uncomfortable levels. Like the characters in “Magnolia,” we pray for sweet release. When release comes, we are not prepared and we do not understand. Maybe we don’t need to. Maybe this, Stanley would say, is something that happens.

Real-life movie moment

The movie: “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (2006); dir. by Adam McKay; starring Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen, Amy Adams, Leslie Bibb.

The moment: After a rockin’ concert by the King of Country Western Troubadors, one M. Carter @ the Movies got a most unusual — one might even call it “mammar-able” — autography.

The correlation: Unknown Hinson’s response to my brazen request for a signature would have made Ricky Bobby proud: “Absolutely. I’d be happy to sign your chest.”