Step Brothers

Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in Step Brothers (dir. Adam McKay, 2008).

The greatest American film of the twenty-first century so far? No. Or is it? No, that would be Anchorman, or maybe Talladega Nights.

Scoff if you want, but how many directors have three first films (or any films in a row) as intensely, fully realized as Adam McKay's trilogy of the "stuplime," to borrow a term from Sianne Ngai? (Will Ferrell must receive a lot of the credit, of course, as his ad-libbing is so pervasively constitutive of the flavor of these movies.)

There's only one moment in Step Brothers that feels like a misstep (pun noticed at the moment of commission). That's when the writers inexplicably feel it necessary to have Richard Jenkins spell out to us that the two nitwits played by Ferrell and O'Reilly are more interesting and endearing in their state of stunted maturity than when they get their socialized act together and learn how to fill out tax forms. It's not just that it's obvious; it's that it attempts somehow to justify what is appealing precisely because it resists assimilation into justificatory structures. Brennan and Dale are unacceptable. They're complete idiots, noxious to others and hazards to their own well-being. When they manage to pull off "normal" long enough to point the movie towards its inevitable resolution, it's funny because their version of normal is just as stupid as their version of stupid. To have them realize that the squares they become are boring squares is too easy, and reflective, cathartic acceptance on the part of those around them muddies the humor.

But this is one imperfection in the midst of a veritable grand ballet of unapologetically farcical comic debasement. Some of the funniest moments belong to Kathryn Hahn, as the frustrated wife of Will Ferrell's brother Derek. Some viewers might object to the way in which her desire is presented a manifestation of the feminine grotesque, but within the overall anthropological erotics of the film's universe, she's just another brave pioneer at the outer boundaries of self-respect and imaginable subjecthood. When she takes charge of a urinal in a restaurant men's room, it's a bracing moment of political idiosyncrasy. Her confidence exceeds practicality, but as we cut to the next scene, we're spared the complications; we're left with merely the optimism of her bravado.

1 comment:

Mike Hauser said...

I thought Kathryn Hahn had a couple really funny moments in Anchorman too.