THE APATOW COMEDY Factory's special this week is 'Step Brothers,' a delightful, saucy R-rated comedy starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly as 40-year-old man-children. Steeped in a spicy complementary role are Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins, adding a dash of straight-man to the onscreen insanity offered by our starring duo. Guest-directing this weekend is Adam McKay, master of the improv-on-screen technique. Bon apetit!
If Judd Apatow was a restaurant, he would almost certainly be The Cheesecake Factory. Considered the reigning King of Comedy, Apatow has produced 34 titles (including Talladega Nights, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and the cult TV show Undeclared) according to IMDB.com, directing only five (Knocked Up and The 40 Year Old Virgin most prominently among them). Like the restaurant to which I am comparing him, Apatow succeeds with a broad variety of comedic dishes, doing a few of them exceptionally well while lending his brand name to a number of lesser stars that bring customers in the doors. Step Brothers is one of those lesser stars.
Directed by Adam McKay, Step Brothers is a classic example of why it's nice to have competent actors in lieu of a script. Ferrell and Reilly have little to work with, in terms of plot or story material; they're merely forty-year-old virgins living with their respective parents, two singles (Steenburgen and Jenkins) who meet at a conference. Knowing only that they hate each other at first and must grow to love each other over the proceeding 90 minutes, Ferrell and Reilly are basically given free reign, allowed to do what they wish on screen.
For the most part, it works. Though improv frequently bombs when performed live, it is well-suited for the big-screen. If you give an editor hours of material to sift through, they will almost certainly come up with enough workable stuff to create a serviceable flick. Ferrell and Reilly are at their unpredictable bests here. Given an R rating, the two can drop any profanity they wish, allowing one fewer screen between the funny and the audience.
McKay is the perfect director for this kind of horseplay. He is the man responsible for both Talladega Nights and Anchorman, the two films that made the greatest use of Will Ferrell's impressive improvisational talents. He's also the man responsible for "The Landlord," the single greatest bit of Internet-based humor ever released.
As talented as Ferrell, Reilly, and McKay are, they still need a competent supporting cast. Enter Steenburgen and Jenkins, the put-upon parents trying to deal with their failed children. The pair bring a real chemistry to the screen, projecting a love that only parents have. It seems that they really care for Ferrell and Reilly, even as the pair blunder through job interviews and hare-brained get-rich-quick schemes. Added to the mix is Ferrell's younger brother Adam Scott, an over-achiever who hates his elder and his new step-brother. The film really comes to life when Reilly, Ferrell, and Scott are on screen together, indulging in the worst aspects of their nature.
If you like the mature brand of comedy Judd Apatow has pioneered over the last 24 months, you'll love Step Brothers. It's a quirky, quick comedy done with a linguistic panache unfamiliar to many of its peers.
Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.