Step Brothers demonstrates the inevitable negative effects of too much of a good thing by taking a bunch of stuff that has worked in previous Will Ferrell comedies—his chemistry with co-star John C. Reilly; his overconfident-boob persona; a loose, improvisational approach to scenes; jokes largely made up of bizarre non sequiturs—and unleashing them in a movie with barely any sort of plot or structure to contain them. The problem with Step Brothers is not that Ferrell has ceased to be funny, although his shtick is clearly wearing thin; the problem is that he and collaborator Adam McKay, with whom he worked on Anchorman and Talladega Nights, have abandoned all goals other than to “be funny” in the most desperate, overblown and ultimately grating manner.
While both Anchorman and Talladega Nights had nominal objects of satire (TV news in the 1970s; NASCAR), Step Brothers has no such target. The idea seems to be simply to set Ferrell and Reilly, who play 40-year-old losers still living with their parents, in a room together and have them say the stupidest things they can possibly come up with, and then use whichever takes are salvageable. The emotional dynamic between the two in Nights had a certain underlying pathos to it; at the very least you could tell they were meant to be different people, and their inability to connect across those differences was what created some of the movie’s best comedic moments. In Step Brothers, Ferrell and Reilly play the exact same character—they’re not so much Dumb and Dumber as they are Dumb and Also Dumb.
Ferrell’s Brennan is a spoiled mama’s boy, and Reilly’s Dale is sheltered by his father’s success, so when their parents get married, the two are selfishly hostile at first before realizing that they share the same goals and desires in life: to engage in endless childish games, avoid all responsibility and drive everyone around them absolutely crazy. Brennan’s smug biological brother Derek (Adam Scott), the character the movie most means for us to hate, characterizes them as “the world’s biggest dickheads,” and one of the main problems with Step Brothers is that he’s absolutely right. Brennan and Dale come off as functionally retarded assholes, and it’s hard to find their repetitive antics amusing when they continually destroy the lives of the well-meaning parents who coddle them.
The half-hearted maturation arc of the final act is especially disingenuous, and it’s painful to watch solid actors Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins try to make the duo’s parents into both sympathetic enablers and hard-nosed authority figures, depending on what a given scene calls for. The rational supporting characters in Anchorman and Talladega Nights eventually helped the leading buffoons become better people, but here they just give in to the idiocy, often behaving just as reprehensibly as Brennan and Dale themselves.
Ferrell has done disappointing for-hire work recently in movies like Semi-Pro and Blades of Glory, and Step Brothers represents his return, as co-writer and executive producer as well as star, to something over which he has full control. But unfettered Ferrell is now merely unfocused, freed from the confines of story to flail about literally and figuratively, spewing anything that comes to mind and revealing in the process that he has nothing new to say.