I haven't seen much at the movies in the past two years that has given me as much unbridled comic pleasure as the sight of Will Ferrell as the win-at-any-cost NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, calling on Jesus, Tom Cruise, and Oprah Winfrey to put out the psychosomatic flames engulfing his body in director Adam McKay's 2006 Talladega Nights. Until, that is, I saw Ferrell's Brennan Huff — a 39-year-old, live-at-home mama's boy with dreams of a professional singing career — belt out a heartfelt rendition of Bonnie Raitt's "Something to Talk About" midway through the new Ferrell-McKay collaboration, Step Brothers.
In terms of showstopping musical interludes, that one turns out to be only a prelude to the scene where Brennan and his 40-year-old stepbrother, Dale Doback (John C. Reilly), take to the stage and perform their cover of Andrea Bocelli's "Por Ti Volaré." Complete with an extended drum solo. During an important networking event for a corporate helicopter-rental company. I could attempt to describe how, in the course of 90-odd minutes, Step Brothers goes from point A to point B, but that would be about as useless as trying to explain how Alice passed through the looking glass.
McKay and Ferrell, both Saturday Night Live alumni whose first big-screen collaboration was the 2004 TV-news parody Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, relish working on an absurdist high wire, and the whole point of their movies isn't how any one scene relates to another, but rather how much they can chip away at the logic that holds most ordinary movies together without causing the audience to revolt. The most inspired/quotable moments in their work — I'm thinking of Anchorman's rival-anchorman rumble and impromptu jazz-flute solo, or the TV commercial that suddenly appears in the middle of Talladega Nights' checkered-flag climax — are exercises in a kind of virtuoso lunacy where anything goes and nothing is sacred. In the case of Step Brothers, this means not one but two scenes of violent physical confrontation between Brennan and Dale and a pack of unruly preteen playground bullies. If the thought of that doesn't at least bring a smile to your face, this is definitely not the movie for you. If, on the other hand, you've always secretly wanted to see a woman making industrious use of a urinal, you've come to the right place.
Step Brothers, which Ferrell and McKay co-wrote after conceiving the basic premise together with Reilly, doesn't offer much in the way of explanation as to why its newly minted stepsiblings, brought together under one roof after the union of their single parents (Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen), have never left the nest or held a steady job — or, more to the point, why they seem to have stopped developing emotionally somewhere around the age of 12. But Ferrell and Reilly are quite a sight in their Eighties-era T-shirts and too-short shorts, jerking off (in Ferrell's case) to a TV exercise infomercial or ruminating (in Reilly's) on what it means to be a man: "We like to shit with the door open, talk about pussy, and go on riverboat gambling trips." This is well-traveled terrain for Ferrell, who has been cast as varying degrees of man-child in the likes of Old School, Elf, and Wedding Crashers. But here, he and Reilly aren't playing characters so much as they are personifying the ids of all the American males who either never learned to put away childish things or did and wished they hadn't. Besides, if adulthood means turning into Brennan's asshole alpha-male brother (played to preening, carb-free perfection by Tom Cruise look-alike Adam Scott), who wants to relegate that rubber Chewbacca mask to the dark recesses of some closet in the first place?
Not to wax too serious here (since this is, after all, a movie in which two nearly middle-age men beat each other over the heads with blunt instruments on their front lawn), but ticking away just beneath Step Brothers' freely associative surface is a fairly astute commentary on how we define abstract concepts such as "growing up" and "making something of yourself," whether it's a wife and 2.5 kids, a six-pack of rock-hard abs, or a seven-figure bank account. Does that make Step Brothers terminally juvenile or borderline profound — a movie for the masses or a stealthy mockery of them? It's par for the course in Ferrell and McKay's comic universe that just as we seem poised to figure it all out, we receive a freshly made whipped-cream pie to the face. Only, instead of whipped cream, it's avocado. And — wait a second — it's not even a pie.