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Non-Review Review: Step-Brothers

Is just me, or are the Judd Atapow machine comedies getting crasser and crasser? Sure, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up weren’t exactly incredibly clean pieces of comedy, but they certanly demonstrated far more maturity than most of the recent output from that particular comedy factory – for better or worse. It’s just hard to find bodily function jokes and profanity funny for their own sake, and – if that is the measure of humour these days – that sort of humour is a dime-a-dozen these days. That’s not to say that Step-Brothers is entirely without charm (it has more than a few engaging moments), but just that it seems to think that appealing to the lowest common denominator is a legitimate form of comedy when it can’t think of anything better to do.

Brothers in arms...

The focus of these sorts of comedies seems to be on the eternal man-child. the boy who won’t grow-up. His emotional immaturity is reflected in a rudamentary intelligence and an inability to handle any sort of responsibility. Adam McKay’s films (Anchorman and Telladega Nights) have centred around this character, as have – in their own fashion – Judd Atapow’s. It’s the kind of character which Will Ferrell plays particularly well (and, as we discover here, so can John C. Reilly).

Whereas the fascination with boyhood things was initially relatively subtle (for example Andy’s inability to part with his collectibles in The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Ron’s “no girls allowed” attitude in Anchorman), here all semblance of subtlety is dropped. Here we get two forty-year-olds who are literally like young teenagers. At one point Brennan remarks on how cool it would have been to have night-vision goggles when they were teenagers, to which Dale replies “Even better, we got ’em when we’re forty”.

The basic plot follows the attempt by two man-children to reconcile when their parents (the consistently underrated and incredibly talented Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen) get married, making them the eponymous step-brothers. Both are possessive, demanding and confrontational in their own way. Dale is boisterous and borderline sociopathic, while Brennan is generally introspective and withdrawn. As you can imagine, they hate each other, and then they learn to come to terms with each other (which understandably causes nothing but stress for their poor parents).

A lot of the film’s humour comes from watching two fully grown men playing roles that were clearly meant for kids. The film acknowledges their age, but they are still acting like children (even dressing like them). Sometimes it works quite well (the bunkbed sequence), sometimes less so. A lot of how well it works for the audience depends on how comfortable they are with that dissonance. It’s not too different from the dynamics of earlier films from the same figures, but it is just different enugh that it might strike some viewers as odd.

The rest of humour – as mentioned – comes from gross-out, profanity or crassness. Watching Mary Steenburgen curse can only carry a movie so far, though. Beyond that, the movie’s really on its own. At its core, it has a slightly more jumbled message than these sorts of comedies produce, with even more of an issue than most. If – as the movie infers – growing up isn’t something to be embraced because that’s the way the world works, does it justify the past actions of Dale and Brennan (and all the damage they have caused)?

It isn’t as strong as most of the other comedies from this particular team, though there are more than a few laugh-out-loud moments. For the most part, it seems to coast on a repetitive premise (watching grown men act like children has been a stable of entertainment for years) without following through or offering anything to carry the rest of the movie. Still, it’s reasonably diverting, if not gut-burstingly funny.

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