**½/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras B+
starring Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen
screenplay by Will Ferrell & Adam McKay
directed by Adam McKay
by Bryant Frazer The critical consensus is that Step Brothers is the quintessence of the ongoing cycle of American films that celebrate the adolescent man-child. Watch as it calibrates itself against the emotional needs of its now Apatow-habituated audience, first suggesting that a creepy, psychosexually retarded 40-year-old living in Mom's basement needs to grow the fuck up and join the workforce already, then--ha-ha, just kidding--drawing back to declare that what's really important is said 40-year-old reaching a meaningful compromise with the world (like pro karaoke!) that doesn't involve abandoning his no-doubt-considerable sense of wonder and capacity for joy.
Then again, who cares that the movie both spoonfeeds and flatters its target demographic? So long as it brings the funny. And Step Brothers is indeed funny in the "Saturday Night Live" mode, milking its premise--petulant 40ish layabouts Brennan Huff and Dale Doback (Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly) are forced to become roommates when their single parents (reliable workhorses Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins) fall in love and move in under one roof--for all the sketch-comedy antics it's worth. Sometimes the individual episodes manage to mine a vein of crude comedy, and sometimes they're just embarrassing. One bit, in which Brennan brandishes a latex appliance to besmirch the drum kit Dale keeps in his "Beat Laboratory," is such a chowderbrained knock-off of the "franks-and-beans" gag from There's Something About Mary that it threatens to give prosthetic genitals a bad name. Maybe theatrical audiences whooped and hollered at this stuff, but the living-room crowd is likely to find the paucity of comic imagination more apparent.
To put it another way: R-rated slapstick is the Farrelly Brothers' métier, while Ferrell and his co-writer Adam McKay (who also directs) get more mileage from verbal humour. Few dividends are paid as Ferrell and Reilly grapple repeatedly and mug for the camera with a seemingly endless succession of silly faces. (The most incisive observation about that comes from L.A. Clipper Baron Davis, who aptly compares their mope-faced screen presence to "adult Cabbage Patch Kids" when he shows up, inexplicably, on the Blu-ray's audio commentary.) Instead, it's the delivery of the preternaturally sassy--and determinedly R-rated--one-liners springing from their characters' cocksure cluelessness that earns the chuckles. Viewers are encouraged to simultaneously scorn and admire these two terminal arrested-development cases. They're socially inept yet somehow always ready with a zinger. With that temperament, why not try a career in show business?
Somewhere around the one-hour mark, the film's unpleasantly cloddish temperament and laborious character arcs start to get in the way of those zingers. (There was a time when bad-taste comedies delighted in mocking Hollywood formula, but these days they've gotten lazy enough to embrace it again.) I watched the "extended" unrated version, which runs about eight minutes longer than the 98-minute theatrical cut. I'm not sure exactly how the two differ, though it seems unlikely that eight minutes one way or the other would make this substantially more entertaining--or any more or less raunchy. Step Brothers is good for some giggles, but it never gets beyond that base-level achievement. To be fair, it never aspires to.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Although puffed-up two-disc editions of Hollywood comedies generally leave me cold, this "2-Disc Unrated Edition" Blu-ray release is pretty good. There is a huge amount of extra filmed material on these discs--not low-quality workprint footage but approximately 103 minutes of release-quality outtakes encoded in HD, organized into categories and spread across both platters. Digging through this material gives the dedicated viewer a sense for the way the film's storyline was developed during production, with different improvisational takes offering different shades of character development and motivation. On the audio commentary, McKay estimates that the production shot 1.5 million feet of film and then everyone has a laugh about the fact that Apocalypse Now only shot about 1.25 million. As you'd expect, the calibre of the content is widely variable, but here's a tip: If you're pressed for time, go directly to the "alternate scene" titled "Catalina Heart Attack," wherein erstwhile "Daily Show" correspondent Rob Riggle pops up in a cameo that would be the funniest thing in the movie had it made the final cut.
Here's a rundown of the remaining supplements, presented in HD and Dolby Digital 2.0 except where noted. The first disc includes an arbitrary selection of six "Deleted Scenes" running just under nine minutes in total. (A forced five-second interstitial copyright notice that plays after each scene will add more than 30 seconds to your viewing time.) They're mostly cut for good reason, although "Hard Wired," a gag about a phone-sex service for prison inmates, is worth a snort. Next up is a collection of around 37 minutes of "Extended & Alternate Scenes" showcasing some comic ideas that didn't make the film for unexplained reasons. Some of them are funnier than others, and "Treehouse Sex Stories" (7 mins.) is honestly a bit of a virtuoso piece as Ferrell and Reilly's characters one-up each other with fabricated tales of sexual misadventures developed to significant levels of misinformed crassness.
On the second platter, the parade of outtakes continues in grand fashion. It kicks off with the highly amusing "Line-o-Rama" (6 mins.), which assembles snappy one-liners that were left on the cutting room floor and incidentally reveals some of the film's production challenges--watch the light change dramatically as Adam Scott, playing Will Ferrell's douchebag younger brother, Derek, delivers various iterations of a single line of dialogue and pity the technicians who had to try and make this stuff match in post. A "Gag Reel" (4 mins.) is what we used to call "bloopers" and mainly features Ferrell and Reilly cracking themselves up. That's followed by "Job Interviews" (29 mins.), a series of alternate versions of trimmed and discarded sequences in which the tuxedo-clad Brennan and Dale exhibit outlandishly dickish behaviour as they apply for jobs in tandem. Even hardcore Ferrell fans might start to snooze during "Therapy" (14 mins.), a collection of mostly dull improv from the brothers' banter with psychiatrists, or the "Prestige Worldwide Full Presentation" (5 mins.), another extended scene. By this time, the funny has gone so far missing that this set starts to feel like a preening exercise in self-aggrandizement. Neither the cheesy, shot-on-DV "Boats 'N Hoes" music video (2 mins., SD-only) nor "Dale vs. Brennan" (7 mins.), an assemblage of scenes from the film peppered with outtakes, is particularly redeeming.
If you keep digging, however, you'll be rewarded with "The Making of Step Brothers" (22 mins., 1080i), an above-average featurette that provides a glimpse at the working method behind the scenes, with director McKay shouting out ideas and improvised dialogue to his actors as he watches the action on video monitors. "Our theory is: anyone can improvise," McKay says as he recalls cajoling Steenburgen and Jenkins into embracing the film's freewheeling we'll-try-anything style. But the highlight is "The Music of Step Brothers" (18 mins., 1080i), a detailed look at the process of the film's musically precocious composer, Jon Brion (Punch-Drunk Love), here working with guitarist Nels Cline (Wilco), drummer Greg Saunier (Deerhoof), and mandolinist Chris Thile (Nickel Creek). Thile's duet with Brion will be a charmer for fans of fast-fingered fretting, though the producers missed a chance to beef up the sound quality (it's only 192 kbps Dolby Digital 2.0, stingy for a music-oriented program). It also would've made sense to produce these two features in 24p, thereby preventing the inserted film footage from stuttering because of the mismatched frame cadence, but that's a fairly minor complaint. Greg Cohen and Andrew Epstein produced the documentaries.
The package is rounded out with a couple of more unconventional shorts. "Charlyne Moves In" (7 mins.) is a phoney exposé starring actress Charlyne Yi, who supposedly lives on the film's set and disrupts shooting. And "L'amour en caravane" (12 mins.) is a worthwhile mockumentary short with a surprise ending about a purported on-set affair between Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen. Then there's the funny and profane red-band trailer for Step Brothers, mastered in HD and letterboxed to about 1.85:1. The aforementioned feature-length commentary meanwhile teams Ferrell, Reilly, McKay, and hoopster Davis, and much of it is actually sung to the accompaniment of Brion, who performs several variations on his themes for the film. In my experience it's unique, if not especially informative. (I learned more about the production from the 40 minutes of documentary material than I did from the whole of this yak-track.) Still, it adds value by giving fans a reason to watch the film one more time.
Finally, the 2.40:1, 1080p presentation of Step Brothers proper is adequate but not exceptional. The film was shot in Super 35, so the effective resolution of the camera negative wasn't especially high to begin with. The image has been encoded for Blu-ray using the H.264 codec, and while I'd describe it as detailed and film-like, with the film's fine grain pattern becoming more distinct in darker scenes, it has a generally flat, low-contrast look. (The transfer is sharp enough that you might notice a few shots where the camera crew didn't quite pull proper focus!) Judging from Sony's track record, this probably does represent the look of the original film, even though it feels imprecise--sometimes flesh tones veer to the pink or verge on a mustard-y tone. Again, I suspect some of the lighting and colour-timing decisions were made to accommodate the film's loose, improvisational style, which demanded maximum flexibility for the actors and camera operators alike.
Though the audio quality is solid, lowbrow comedies tend to live in the centre channel and Step Brothers is no exception. The soundstage widens slightly for Brion's score as well as the pop songs selected by music supervisor Hal Willner (and to put a little reverb on Brennan's impromptu vocal performance near the end of the film), but it never draws attention to itself. The movie includes Dolby TrueHD 5.1 tracks in English, French, and Portuguese and 5.1 tracks in Spanish and Thai. Subtitles are selectable in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, Korean, and Chinese. The special features are English-language only with subtitles in Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Thai.
Last but not least is the surprisingly interesting "Boats 'N Hoes" Music Video Editor, an innovative use of Blu-ray technology that lets you create your own edit of the film's crass music-video clip by using your remote control's number pad to select from nine different camera angles that run the length of the video. The interface is a little clunky, but it works--and if you're so inclined, you can use the disc's BD-Live support to upload your handiwork and share it with the wide world outside. I was immediately reminded of abortive attempts from the early days of home videophilia, when The Criterion Collection came out with LaserDiscs of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Bram Stoker's Dracula containing instructions for using that format's rudimentary chapter-programming to create different edits on the fly. Let's hope it won't be too long before somebody figures out something really cool to do with this technology. Originally published: December 16, 2008.