The title is "Step Brothers." You know, because there are two of them.
But Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly are essentially playing the same person, which is the movie's fundamental, irreparable flaw.
As 40-year-olds who've never left home and are forced to share a bedroom when their parents get married, Ferrell and Reilly are stuck in the same state of arrested development. There's no odd-couple tension, no witty banter, just a prolonged, painfully unfunny game of one-upmanship in which each actor is trying to outdo the other in one-note obnoxiousness. You wouldn't want to spend two hours with one of these guys, much less both.
Sure, they display slight personality differences _ Ferrell's Brennan wears vintage T-shirts with Pablo Cruise or The Judds on them, while Reilly's Dale prefers Yoda _ but they're cut from the same kitschy cloth. They look alike, they talk alike. They share the same interest in dinosaurs, martial arts, bad TV, worse music and above all, crass put-downs. (Most of them can't be repeated here, which is fine, because they're not exactly zingers anyway.)
They immediately hate each other, eventually become best friends and then hate each other all over again. But regardless of the status of their relationship, the humorously awkward chemistry these actors shared as teammates in "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" is long gone, because the script makes no room for it. And that's strange, because Ferrell co-wrote the screenplay with his old friend, director Adam McKay, with whom he collaborated on the NASCAR comedy. (Reilly shares a story-by credit here.)
Watching "Step Brothers," though, it doesn't take long to realize that their creative process consisted of sitting around, cracking each other up with adolescent gags, and then writing it all down. Whether the rest of the world will be doubled over with laughter seems irrelevant _ and that insularity is ultimately alienating. (A couple of funny lines do pop up here and there.)
At the same time, many of the jokes are of the broad, physical variety and seemingly aimed at the lowest common denominator. Brennan and Dale routinely beat each other to a pulp with whatever is convenient: a shovel, a cymbal, a bike, their fists. Then once they reach a detente and team up to exact revenge on the school yard bullies who regularly torment Dale, they turn around and beat those kids to a pulp, which isn't particularly inspired, either.
It's not that any of this stuff is offensive, it's just hackneyed and flat. You can practically feel the strain through the screen. There's also the obligatory gross-out bodily humor, including Dale's inability to keep his gas to himself during a job interview (hardy-har). And we won't even begin to describe the, um, creative way Brennan uses a bath mat, or what he does to Dale's prized drum kit.
Meanwhile, all Brennan's mom, Nancy (Mary Steenburgen), and Dale's dad, Robert (Richard Jenkins), can do is throw their hands up and sigh in exasperation. Often they scream back with expletives of their own _ because in theory, it's supposed to be shocking to hear dirty words flying from Steenburgen's proper, Southern mouth. Both actors deserve better.
Ferrell and Reilly do, too. We know they're capable of wildly inventive humor, of demonstrating a fearlessness in creating bizarre characters. "Step Brothers" doesn't even begin to challenge either of them _ it's several steps down for them both.
"Step Brothers," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R for crude and sexual content, and pervasive language. Running time: 112 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G _ General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG _ Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 _ Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R _ Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 _ No one under 17 admitted.