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The blending of families can be frightening, frustrating and not at all funny.
Case in point: Step Brothers.
The stepbrothers of the title are 39 and 40 years old, respectively—each one a hulking man-child who never found the will to grow up, get a career, and do more with his time than read Hustler magazines and laugh at fart jokes. Each still lives with his parent. Dale, the oldest, is a 13-year-old in need of Rogaine. He's been practicing his surly teen 'tude for, oh, a good twenty-some years now, and he's apparently at his most pensive when he wears a furry Chewbacca mask. Brennan is the sensitive one—a mama's boy who claims to be the "songbird of my generation." But he's too shy to sing.
If only their parents—Robert Doback and Nancy Huff—would've never met at that fateful medical conference. If only they had not been so smitten by each other that afternoon in the lecture hall when Robert said—from the podium—how much he wanted to put his face between Nancy's breasts. If that hadn't happened, he and she would've continued "raising" overgrown Rug Rat 1 and 2 at a blissfully ignorant distance from each other. Dale and Brennan would've never met, and we would've been spared this film.
Alas. Robert and Nancy did meet. They did have sex. They did get married. And Adam McKay did make this movie.
Dale and Brennan hate each other at first. They whisper insults and threats to each other in their shared room as they drop off to sleep, play mean practical jokes on each other when they're awake, and eventually have a knock-down, drag-out on the front lawn. By that time, Robert's had just about enough.
"No television for a week!" he bellows.
But eventually the stepbrothers discover they have quite a bit in common and become, for a while, best friends: They pal around like kids on an extended sleepover, sharing secrets, showing off their own little treasures (night-vision goggles, a samurai sword signed by American Idol judge Randy Jackson) and plotting an improbable career path for themselves. They start acting like, well, brothers, standing up for each other when the chips are down.
Nancy and Robert sometimes display some reasonably OK parenting skills. (Not exactly the highest praise, I know, but it's the best I can do considering the circumstances.) Nancy loves her son and wants to see both of the "boys" succeed, even if it requires Mother Teresa levels of patience. Robert becomes more of a tough-love father figure, telling them they have a month to find jobs and move out. A little overdue, I'd say, but still, he's headed in the right direction.
Step Brothers does touch on the painful emotional roller-coasters kids sometimes ride when their home lives are troubled. When Robert and Nancy say they're getting a divorce, Brennan says, "Is it 'cause we were bad?" and Dale throws up.
Brennan's singing voice, Dale says, is really, really good. "That is a voice of an angel," he says. "Your voice is a combination of Fergie and Jesus." Brennan also asks if the house is haunted.
Dale's sordid relationship with his stepsister-in-law sets the tone: Alice is unhappily married to Brennan's scummy brother Derek. When Dale punches Derek in the face, Alice takes a shine to her protector and tells him that she will "pleasure herself" while recalling the image of that smackdown.
Their "bond" becomes a running gag. Alice sloppily kisses Dale and seduces him in a men's bathroom—an encounter that, while avoiding explicit nudity, includes graphic sexual imagery and a tawdry verbal play-by-play. And at family dinners, she writes obscene messages in peas for Dale to read—all while her husband and two children sit nearby. Dale eventually runs away from her—literally—but not before the jokes about them have been wrung out into an exhausted mess.
We see two other sexual encounters: One is Robert and Nancy's hotel rendezvous, where we see them strip off their clothes (Nancy gets down to her bra) and roll around on the bed. The second is a fantasy scene wherein Brennan—dressed as a lumberjack—barges in on his therapist.
Why aren't there any more sex scenes than that, you ask? Because many of these characters seem more obsessed with solo "solutions." Dale sports a huge collection of pornographic magazines from several decades. He tells Brennan "it's like masturbating in a time machine." (Pops later supplies them with Hustler mags, of which we see some explicit pages.) Good Housekeeping, they both say, is their most "inspirational" non-pornographic magazine, and we see Brennan start to put his hand down his pants during a daytime exercise show on TV.
Brennan rubs his scrotum (which we see) on Dale's drum set. Dale tells Brennan that he and his father both talked about having sex with Nancy. Dale describes a sexually explicit encounter with Nancy to his dad. Brennan insinuates that Dale tried to rape him. And they discuss what guy they'd most like to sleep with.
Alice relieves herself in a urinal. We frequently see Dale in his underwear. Dale and Brennan regularly talk about their penises, even measuring them at one point. And on it goes.
All that said, it's clear Dale and Brennan are fighters, not lovers, and often they fight each other. During one such rumble, Dale coldcocks Brennan with a cymbal and, thinking he's dead, drags him into the front yard to bury him. Brennan, faking the whole death thing, then hits Dale with a shovel and buries him alive. Dale somehow crawls out of his premature grave and the two wrestle on the ground, eventually falling asleep on the lawn. They pummel each other with bats and golf clubs in another fight, and Dale pushes Brennan off a moving sailboat.
Dale and Brennan rig their twin beds into bunk beds—the top of which collapses on Brennan, giving him a nasty scratch. They practice karate in the garage, shredding several large pumpkins. When they sleepwalk, we see them toss everything from food to coffee cups to Christmas presents. Robert tries to wake them up once, and he gets beaten up and thrown down the stairs for his efforts. They also wreck Robert's prized boat.
When Dale smacks Derek in the face, Derek falls from a tree house to the hard, hard ground below. Derek almost wrecks his Range Rover during a family sing-along. We see some gruesome clips from an old Steven Seagal movie (Brennan and Dale are big fans, apparently) and occasionally witness a guide dog attack various characters.
The most brutal act of violence is delivered by dozens of kids, who beat Dale and Brennan savagely (we see their heads underneath seesaws, and later see them nurse bumps and bruises at home). After the credits roll, the stepbrothers take revenge on their diminutive bullies, engaging in a huge, martial arts-style showdown.
Crude or Profane Language
Characters let loose more than 50 f-words and 30 s-words. Every slang term you can think of for a critical part of the male anatomy (and some that you can't) is flung from one end of the screen to the other. God's and Jesus' names are abused.
Drug and Alcohol Content
When Nancy tells Brennan that Robert attended Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Brennan says that he once "smoked pot with Johnny Hopkins." Dale paints "I (heart) crystal meth" on one of Brennan's shirts as a practical joke. Several characters drink wine and champagne. Nancy tells Robert that he smells like "scotch and cheesecake."
Other Negative Elements
Neither Dale nor Brennan show consistent respect for their mom and dad, and at one point a furious Brennan tells Dale that as soon as his mom is "of age, I'm putting her in a home." They insult would-be bosses. (Dale lets loose a lingering bit of flatulence during an interview.) They urinate in the toilet together. And when Brennan runs out of toilet paper (we see him sitting, pants down and the side of his rear exposed) he either washes up in the sink or wipes with the floor rug. The playground bullies force Brennan to lick a piece of dog dung.
My first instinct is to conclude with this gem of a line that is exactly the sort of thing that might come from Brennan's or Dale's mouth: Step Brothers is stoopid.
But maybe I'm being too hard on it. Perhaps it is, in an ever-so-sly way, merely a misguided cautionary tale.
Setting aside its sexual content (which is extreme), its proclivity for gross-out jokes (which is rampant) and its alarming failure to ever actually be funny, Step Brothers' apparent message is that we should never lose hold of the child within us.
That's good as far as it goes. I hope to never outgrow Legos. I have Hot Wheels cars decorating my desk. I still think it's fun to roll down a grassy hill.
But what happens if you take that lesson too seriously? You get middle-aged men galumphing around in brightly colored briefs and Chewbacca masks, mooching off their parents and refusing to grow up and get a job.
We all know that the Bible tells us there comes a time when we should put away childish things. If we didn't, who would raise the real children? And, as appealing as it may be to hang out in the neighborhood tree house come 40, there are some real advantages to growing up. Not the least of which is to know—really and truly know—that there are far superior forms of entertainment out there than Step Brothers.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Will Ferrell as Brennan Huff; John C. Reilly as Dale Doback; Mary Steenburgen as Nancy Huff; Richard Jenkins as Robert Doback; Adam Scott as Derek