Who knew John C. Reilly was so funny? That's all I heard after Talladega Nights came out. Well, I did and everyone else who'd ever seen Boogie Nights. He practically steals that movie as the bumbling Chest Rockwell. He's also one of the best character actors of his generation (and one of my personal favorites), right up there with William H. Macy and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Go rent Magnolia or A Prairie Home Companion or What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, if you don't believe me.
And then, of course, there's Will Ferrell, the man touted by many as the savior of both comedy and Saturday Night Live. He's been making the world laugh pretty consistently since '95, though he really broke out thanks to his spot-on George W. Bush impression during the 2000 election. His improvisation skills are legendary by now, and he's steadily ascended to the apex of bankable male comedy leads.
So, the question is, how do two of the funniest people on the planet make one of the most frustrating films to come out in quite awhile? Well, the simple answer is over-confidence, but the right answer is a little more complex.
In his review of Wedding Crashers, Roger Ebert referred to Will Ferrell as "a pinch hitter who can clear the bases." That, in a nutshell, is how Step Brothers treats both John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell. Rather than taking time to introduce the characters and give the audience a reason to give a shit, director Adam McKay assumes their mere presence is enough to get everyone on board. Regrettably, he's right. Most people at my showing laughed uproariously and consistently, but I silently shook my head and wondered what could have been.
Step Brothers has the talent and the premise to be a legendary comedy, right up there with 40 Year Old Virgin and Stripes, but unfortunately, it lacks the heart, direction, and depth of those far superior films. Dale and Brennan don't exist. Never at any point do either of them even come close to vaguely representing real human beings. They're beyond caricatures. They're excuses for Ferrell and Reilly to goof around. Step Brothers would be more accurately titled Will Ferrell's New Project because the film itself is less a movie and more an excuse to try out new gags. Anchorman's Ron Burgandy is a real person. So is Buddy from Elf and even Frank from Old School. They remind us of people we know and possess characteristics we do. That's why they'll be fondly remembered. Unlike Dale and Brennan.
I'm reminded of one of the first sketches Will Ferrell ever did on Saturday Night Live. He played a smiley father cooking out and discussing golf with a few friends. Every few seconds he would stop to berate his young children for playing on the shed, then return to pleasant, superficial conversation as if his wild tirade never happened. That's Will Ferrell at his best: an average guy who's maybe a little crazier, a little closer to the edge but still grounded among us.
There's a certain sadness behind the eyes of every great comedic character. Royal Tenenbaum had it. So did Bob Harris and Uncle Buck and Jake Blues. Behind all the punch lines and pratfalls, there's just a sad little boy who wants acceptance. And that's why we laugh with them because all of us feel that sadness. Step Brothers is a comedy starring two great comedians who play characters without that sadness. Maybe because of overconfidence, maybe because of the material, I'm not sure. But beneath all the sight gags and showmanship, there's nothing. And that's why Step Brothers is forgettable and superficial.