Almost all Will Ferrell comic characters suffer from arrested development—he's usually the biggest baby in the room—as do most of the boy-men in the unending onslaught of comedies from Apatow and Co. "Step Brothers," the newest collaboration between Ferrell and writer-director Adam McKay, produced by Judd Apatow, takes this trend to its logical next step: screaming infantilism.
The title characters are Brennan Huff (Ferrell) and Dale Doback (John C. Reilly). Though Brennan is 39 and the unemployed Dale is 40, both still live at home, Brennan with his mom (Mary Steenburgen) and Dale with his doctor dad (Richard Jenkins). When the two parents fall in love and wed, these two spoiled, overgrown infants are thrown together in the same household, and worse, forced to share a room. It's hate at first sight. "Don't ever touch my drum set!" wails the angry, threatened Dale, the more aggressive of the two. Brennan, a big wounded teddy bear of a man, does more than touch them. This being an anatomically revealing Apatow production, he proceeds to desecrate them with his family jewels. With many of the "jokes" in "Step Brothers"—both guys, improbably, are sleepwalkers, who proceed to trash the house in their somnolent nighttime forays into the kitchen—you may find yourself wincing, rather than laughing, at the overgrown boys' tantrums, which threaten to destroy their parents marriage, not to mention the audience's patience with these two pathologically selfish brats.
That "Step Brothers" ultimately proves funnier, and more tolerable, than this premise suggests is largely a credit to the gifted and committed cast, who manage to find little air bubbles of subtlety and pathos amidst the broad rumpus room humor. Even when the situations feel rickety and contrived, the four principals find just enough emotional realism to keep the farce from going completely off track. And just when Dale and Brennan's infantile bickering is about to wear out its noisy welcome, Brennan's sleek, successful, intolerably smug brother Derek (Adam Scott) arrives on the scene, and the two mortal enemies bond in their mutual loathing of this snooty entrepreneur. They become allies, though this is far from the end of story, for their friendship proves almost equally destructive.
Still, as amusing as "Step Brothers" can be, it seems a regression in more ways than one: after McKay's "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," a high point along with "Elf" in the Ferrell comedy canon, one hoped for more than this overextended "Saturday Night Live"-style sketch. Though McKay and his cast—which includes the fearless Kathryn Hahn as the despicable Derek's randy, frustrated wife, whose ferocious come-ons to the dumbstruck Dale take lust to hilariously new levels—make the most of the material, "Step Brothers" is constrained by its one-joke concept. The movie, which begins by making fun of its hapless heroes' infantilism, ends by sentimentally celebrating it, as if the only alternative to being a perpetual 13-year-old was dull, soul-squelching, conformist adulthood. This feels less like satire than pandering.
I don't want to sound like a party pooper (or deny that there is something wickedly funny about seeing these middle-age adolescents beating the crap out of a playground full of little bullying kids) but there's something depressing about the never-ending celebration of eternal adolescence in recent American comedies. It would be useful to show "Step Brothers" on a double bill with Howard Hawk's 1952 wild screwball comedy "Monkey Business," in which grown-ups Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers accidentally take a youth potion that turns them into giddy, uninhibited teenagers. But at the end of the day, in the Hawks movie, you can't go home again. Nowadays, you never have to leave.