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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+

Perfect for every part

In his review of “Burn After Reading,” Roger Ebert remarked that Frances McDormand has a “rare ability to seem correctly cast in every role.” Truer words were never spoken, I’d say, but they made me little mind take a wander and a ponder. (It’s dangerous to do both at once, but my mind sort of walks on the wild side.) And so I considered: Are there other modern-day actors/actresses out there who seem perfect for every role no matter how good or bad the movie?

(Prepare for some serious anticlimactic-ness. I would have stopped writing if the answer to this question was “no.”)

Eventually I devised a list of modern actors/actresses who impress me every time I see them. Today I’ll keep the focus on the men.

The actors

  • Christian Bale — OK, fine, so this one was a gimme, you’re screaming at me. Maybe it was. But any list of chameleonic actors that does not contain Bale’s name is a fraud because nobody does it quite like Bale. He’s gotten stuck in a rut of late, but his talent tells me he’s got a lighter (though no less brilliantly acted) role in him somewhere.
  • Adrien Brody — From big-name critic pleasers (i.e., “The Pianist”) to low-budge, so-so indies (“Dummy,” “Love the Hard Way”) to a movie with Tupac (“Bullet”), Brody’s done it all, and every character’s believable. Now that’s real talent, and not the kind you can learn in acting school.
  • Don Cheadle — It goes without saying that no one’s quite as willing to try anything as Cheadle, who moves from Oscar-worthy stuff (“Hotel Rwanda,” “Crash”) to slick fun (the “Ocean’s” trilogy) to pure fluff (“Hotel for Dogs”) with an air of cool that can’t be penetrated. Bring on the new Col. Rhodes.
  • Johnny Depp — Everyone remembers Johnny Depp as someone different. (To me, he’ll always be Jack Sparrow/Gilbert Grape/Sam.) He’s never the same character twice (though he does bring that left-of-center attitude to many roles), and that’s why he continues to captivate us so. Anyone who has the stones to attempt to remake Willy Wonka gets in on sheer guts.
  • Richard Jenkins — All hail to the (until recently) unsung hero of Hollywood. Relegated to way-too-small parts, this superb character actor routinely steals scenes (“The Man Who Wasn’t There”) or improves a terrible movie (“Step Brothers,” anyone?). “The Visitor” was his chance to take the lead, and I hope he gets many, many more. He certainly deserves them.
  • William H. Macy — Macy’s the low-key guy who makes a point to sneak up and win us over when we’re not looking. TV, drama, black comedy (check him out in “Thank You for Smoking”) — there’s nothing this actor can’t handle. I think we all know he was the only heavy-hitter in “Wild Hogs” … which is a compliment even if it doesn’t quite sound like one.
  • Sean Penn — He’s a tricky, tricky fellow, this one, and a chameleon who just plain disappears into whatever character he’s playing. All talk of his petulance, snippy interviews, volatile relationship with the media melts away when he’s Harvey Milk, or Jimmy Markum, or Matthew Poncelot.
  • Joaquin Phoenix — There was a time (you remember it, and fondly) before Joaquin grew the mountain man beard and turned weirder than Kristen Stewart’s hair that he was quite the transformer. He could make funny (“8MM,” “Buffalo Soldiers”), do action (“Ladder 49”) and go for wrenching drama (everything else he ever did). Will someone order the exorcism so we can get the real J.P. back?
  • Geoffrey Rush — Rush has been so many colorful characters that it’s hard to pick a favorite (Casanova Frankenstein — wait, it’s not so hard). From the Marquis de Sade to Javert (how literary!) to Peter Sellers to the intellectual Captain Barbosa playing, well, Javert to Johnny Depp’s Valjean, Rush makes it look so darn easy, and cool to boot.
  • Benicio del Toro — Benicio always gets us with the drama. Nobody does “tortured and mysterious” quite like him (see “The Pledge” or “21 Grams”), and so the comedy — when he unleashes it — shocks us silly. But he’s got jokes, too, and a sly sense of humor that will come to good use in “The Three Stooges.” If anybody could revamp Moe Howard, it’s Fred Fenster, alright.

What say you, readers? Let’s hear your suggestions.

Crazy plot, performances elevate unfunny “Burn After Reading”

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Richard Jenkins, Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt stumble upon some "top-secret CIA shit" in the Coen brothers' "Burn After Reading."

A note to the Coen brothers: There’s dry humor, and then there’s just … dryness.

Harsh words, perhaps, but true ones nonetheless: “Burn,” the brothers’ disappointing, largely unfunny follow-up to the flawless “No Country for Old Men,” lacks almost anything that resembles jokes or humor or anything, really, that might elicit more than a few half-hearted smirks. Gone are the zany but mostly on-target insights of The Dude; forgotten are the wild, surreal antics of H.I. McDunnough. What’s left is a whole mess of dry humor that likes, um, humor.

Still, that’s not to say “Burn After Reading” is a total wash. The over-the-top plot — which involves everything from cuckholding to murder to extortion — and a string stellar performances keep “Burn” from falling a notch or two below the Coen brothers’ mediocre “Intolerable Cruelty.”

Central to this convoluted, tangled mess of a plot is alcoholic misanthrope and ex-CIA agent Osbourne Cox (a pitch-perfect John Malkovich), who has decided to write a warts-and-all memoir as the ultimate “up yours” to the yes man (David Rasche) who fired him. But the disc containing Cox’s notes ends up on the floor of Hardbodies Gym, where two cheerfully moronic fitness instructors — Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) — scoop it up and decide to use it as part of a harebrained blackmail scheme. Litzke intends to use the money for an extreme body makeover (“I’ve gotten about as far as this body can take me,” she matter-of-factly informs her plastic surgeon), while Chad, hyped up on adrenaline and Jamba juice, is thrilled to be part of a plan involving “raw intelligence shit, CIA shit.”

Confused yet? Sit tight; things get even stickier when Linda meets jittery ex-Secret Service agent-turned-weirdo-inventor Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) through an online dating service. Sparks fly, but Harry’s not exactly a free agent: He’s “happily married,” and he has a longtime mistress (an icy, curt Tilda Swinton) who just so happens to be Cox’s disgruntled wife.

Rest assured that there is more, much more, but it will not be revealed here. Part of what limited fun there is in “Burn After Reading” comes from watching the brainless plots and subplots and sub-subplots collapse in on themselves like displaced Jenga blocks or explode with surprising force. All the characters are connected, but they’re all too self-absorbed or brainless to notice — a complete cluster of idiots. Not one of the characters appears to have a single redeeming quality, and so it’s easy to laugh when all the plans fall spectacularly apart.

Which is where the actors come in. With less capable peformers, these characters might seem too larger-than-life, or too one-sided to matter much. Not so in “Burn After Reading,” where a few Coen brothers regulars and newcomers do fine work. Malkovich, with his prickly humor and menacing grin, seems right at home, so much so that it’s a wonder this is his first Coen brothers outing. (He would have fit right in with the “Fargo” cast, eh?) Pitt has loads of fun as Chad, a vapid, gum-smacking fitness guru with nary a thought — original or otherwise — inside his frosted head. (His attempts to “sound official” while blackmailing Malkovich are comedy gold.)

Then come the unexpectedly poignant performances. McDormand, arguably the most underrated actress in Hollywood, hits all the right notes as Linda, a lonely woman whose determination to reinvent herself far exceeds her intelligence or perceptiveness. Her desire for companionship is heartbreaking. Clooney plays Harry as a paranoid, needy, emotionally unstable doofus, a man seeking real intimacy in a series of wham-bam-thank you ma’am flings. His emotional immaturity is infuriating but too human to ignore. What McDormand and Clooney do with these two characters is impressive.

How sad, though, that the same can’t be said of “Burn After Reading.” Next to inventive comedies like “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski,” the Coen brothers’ saltine-dry effort feels phoned in.

Grade: B-