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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+

“Proposal” a mixed bag of cliches, worthwhile moments

HOW did I end up in this movie? I mean, I have a SIX-PACK now, dammit!

HOW did I end up in this movie? I mean, I have a SIX-PACK now, dammit!

There is one scene, one single, lonely but powerful little scene, that transcends all the cliches and hokey gimmicks “The Proposal” shamelessly trafficks: Margaret (Sandra Bullock), who checked out on love years ago, stands confronted with the very real possibility (in the form of one Ryan Reynolds) and says, very simply, “I’m scared.” Just two words, but what a whallop of emotional truth they pack. After all, in romance one partner is always chasing the other, no? And here, it seems the person who most wants to run is the one willing to let herself get caught. She surrenders, and not without considerable hesitation. Indeed, it’s a moment so honest and unadorned it feels inexplicably out of place in a movie directed by the same woman who directed — gulp — the subtle-as-an-AK47 “27 Dresses.”

So why is this delicate interaction included in “The Proposal,” which revolves around a cliche so dead-tired even the witty Reynolds cannot charm it alive? Perhaps it exists to provide a shot of credibility, but I suspect the success of the moment has more to do with Bullock and Reynolds. They’re too good. They take a scene meant to be hokey — think Julia Roberts a la “Notting Hill,” that shudder-inducing “I’m just a girl” speech — and make it real and plain and true. Bravo. It works beautifully.

Oh, if only the rest of “The Proposal” were 1/16 that disarming. Bullock and Reynolds, always friendly faces in a romantic comedy, and even the fiery-yet-vulnerable Betty White try their damndest to make it so, but with a plot like this it’s impossible. Raise the shields and prepare for the barrage of cliches: Margaret, the cheerless head of book-publishing company Colden Books, is facing certain deportation (back to Canada!) when she steamrolls her bright, long-suffering assistant Andrew (Reynolds) into a green card engagement. With a highly suspicious INS agent (Denis O’Hare) on their heels, Margaret and Andrew trek out to Alaska, where the orphaned shrew is wined, dined and charmed to bits by Andrew’s family (including White as Wacky Ole’ Gammy and is-she-high-on-something-and-where-can-I-get-it? Mary Steenburgen as Doting Mom). Wacky hijinks ensue, leading up to the same ending that’s been used since the beginning of time. Blecch. Don’t expect any clever tricks here; it’s all as standard as a FAFSA form.

Then again, what kind of schmuck goes into a movie like “The Proposal” expecting clever tricks? This one, that’s who. Or maybe it’s more of a fervent hope than an expectation. An 11th-hour twist? At least one character (including household pets) who doesn’t do exactly what we expect? Nope, nope. Even worse, there’s some seriously bad typecasting going on, and it takes the form of Oscar Nuñez — arguably the funniest secondary character on NBC’s “The Office” — as a heavily accented exotic dancer/lothario. How did he agree to do this? Is the economy this bad, Oscar? Don’t stoop; Sir Ian McKellan would never stoop. What a terrible waste of a genuine talent.

Still, predictable doesn’t have to equal uniformly terrible, especially when heavy-hitters like Bullock (she was aces in “While You Were Sleeping”) and Reynolds (go see “Definitely, Maybe”) show up. Reynolds has had a way with one-liners since “Two Girls and a Guy,” and he’s dependably droll here. Better still, he’s outgrown that lanky cute phase and morphed into something resembling a leading man. He can hold his own. And Bullock injects a little bit of Lucy Eleanor Moderatz into Margaret, proving she can do pratfalls and vulnerability and make it all look believable. Somehow, she makes that same character feel fresh most every time. Ditto that for the unflappable Betty White, now 87 and making a fine career of playing outspoken, kooky-but-warmly-accepting grandmas in Hollywood. Watching these three act (re: not overact) is the most enjoyable pleasure to be expected from the unoriginal “Proposal.”

Grade: C