Step Brothers raises the possibility (perhaps far-fetched) that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, his Most Favored Director, have been listening to their critics. When previous Ferrell vehicles took heat for their laziness, it was an unfortunate consequence of the star’s preferred working methods: he favors improvisational freedom over discipline and focus, and overcompensates for the gag-first approach with worn narrative formulas that only weigh down his comedy’s anarchic spirit. It’s an unexpected relief, then, that Step Brothers is the first Ferrell movie for which sloppiness is not merely the cost of doing business but a guiding principle.
Ferrell and John C. Reilly are more or less interchangeable overgrown man-children whose cocooning routines are upset by the marriage of their previously single parents (Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen, both admirably game). As expected, our heroes have to go out into the world and face adulthood, but McKay and Ferrell (who also wrote the script together) blow a raspberry at the conventional Big Challenge arc, short-circuiting the plot every fifteen or twenty minutes and making great sport of the arbitrariness of it all.
Forsaking the crutches of sporting events and lame nostalgia jokes, and abandoning the arbitrary shackles of PG-13 ratings for the fertile ground of unabashed vulgarity, Ferrell has never seemed more like himself: a big, hairy baby trampling everything in his path. He has yet to prove, a la Steve Martin or Bill Murray, that there’s more to him than his shtick, but for now at least he’s shown he can beat the law of diminishing returns.