I haven’t seen much at the movies in the past two years that has given me as much unbridled comic pleasure as the sight of Will Ferrell as Talladega Nights NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, calling on Jesus, Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey to put out the psychosomatic flames engulfing his body. Until, that is, I saw Ferrell’s Brennan Huff — a 39-year-old live-at-home mamma’s boy with dreams of a professional singing career — belt out a heartfelt rendition of Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About” midway through Step Brothers, the latest collaboration between Ferrell and Talladega director Adam McKay. In terms of showstopping musical interludes, that one turns out to be but a prelude to the scene where Brennan and his 40-year-old stepbrother, Dale Doback (John C. Reilly), take to the stage to perform their version of Andrea Bocelli’s “Por Ti Volaré” — complete with an extended drum solo, during an important networking event for a corporate helicopter-rental company. And I could attempt to describe how, in the course of 90-odd minutes, Step Brothers manages to go from point A to point B, but that would be about as useless as trying to explain how Alice managed to pass through the looking glass.
Gemma La Mana
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Separated at birth?
Sony Pictures Classics
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Baghead's unknown psycho
The Saturday Night Live alumni whose first big-screen collaboration was the 2004 TV-news parody Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, McKay and Ferrell relish working on an absurdist high wire, and the whole point of their movies isn’t how any one scene relates to another but rather how much they can chip away at the logic that holds most movies together, without causing the audience to revolt. The most inspired/quotable moments in their work — I’m thinking of Anchorman’s rival-anchorman rumble and impromptu jazz-flute solo, or the TV commercial that suddenly appears in the middle of Talladega Nights’ checkered-flag climax — are exercises in a kind of virtuoso lunacy where anything goes and nothing is sacred. They like to tilt the world on its side and see how it looks, which, in Step Brothers, means not one but two scenes of violent physical confrontation between Brennan and Dale and a pack of unruly preteen playground bullies. If the thought of that doesn’t at least bring a smile to your face, this is definitely not the movie for you. If, on the other hand, you’ve always yearned to see a woman making industrious use of a urinal, you’ve come to the right place.
Step Brothers, which Ferrell and McKay co-wrote after conceiving the basic premise with Reilly, doesn’t offer much in the way of explanation as to why its newly minted step-siblings, who are brought together under one roof after the union of their single parents (Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen), have never left the nest or held a steady job or, more to the point, seem to have stopped developing emotionally somewhere around age 12. But Ferrell and Reilly are quite a sight in their ’80s-era T-shirts and too-short shorts, jerking off (in Ferrell’s case) to a TV exercise infomercial or ruminating (in Reilly’s) on what it means to be a man: “We like to shit with the door open, talk about pussy and go on riverboat gambling trips.”
This is well-traveled terrain for Ferrell, who has been cast as varying degrees of man-child in the likes of Old School, Elf and Wedding Crashers. But here, he and Reilly aren’t playing characters so much as they are personifying the ids of all those American males who either never learned to put away childish things, or who did and wished they hadn’t. Besides, if adulthood means turning into Brennan’s asshole alpha-male brother (played to preening, carb-free perfection by Cruise look-alike Adam Scott), who wants to relegate that rubber Chewbacca mask to the closet, anyway?
Not to wax too philosophical here — this is, after all, a movie in which two nearly middle-aged men beat each other over the head with blunt instruments — but ticking away just beneath Step Brothers’ freely associative surface is a fairly astute commentary on how we define such abstract concepts as “growing up” and “making something of yourself,” whether it’s a wife and 2.5 kids, a six-pack of rock-hard abs or a seven-figure bank account. Does that make Step Brothers terminally juvenile or borderline profound? A movie for the masses or a stealth mockery of them? It’s par for the course in Ferrell and McKay’s comic universe that, just as we seem poised to figure it all out, we receive a freshly made whipped-cream pie to the face. Only, instead of whipped cream, it’s avocado. And — wait a second — it’s not even a pie.
If Ferrell and McKay hadn’t convinced the Hollywood suits to drink their anarchic Kool-Aid, they’d probably be making movies like Baghead the second feature-length outing for brothers Mark and Jay Duplass. When their imploding-relationship road movie, The Puffy Chair earned warm reviews and lots of indie-film goodwill (if not very much money at the box office) back in 2005, the Duplasses were already the makers of several award-winning short films, one of which, This Is John, was so low-budget that its leading actor was an answering machine. Nowadays, the Duplasses can afford human actors, even those who aren’t members of their immediate family (no slight to Puffy co-stars Mark Duplass and his fiancée, Kathryn Aselton, intended). But that still doesn’t mean you’ll find any familiar faces in the Baghead cast, which seems only fitting for a movie about a quartet of desperate but not entirely serious aspiring actors.
When we first meet Chad (Steve Zissis), Matt (Ross Partridge), Michelle (Greta Gerwig) and Catherine (Elise Muller), they’re at a Los Angeles film festival, attending the premiere of another friend’s black-and-white indie film, We Are Naked — a sequence that captures the toxic, self-congratulatory air of bad indie-film premieres as deftly as anything I’ve seen, and proves early on that the Duplasses are perfectly willing to bite the hand that feeds them. That same night, the foursome hatch a plan: They’ll go to a cabin in Big Bear for the weekend and write a movie of their own, with big roles for each of them in it.
The remainder of Baghead suggests what might have happened if an enterprising 1970s grind-house auteur had decided to make a slasher movie in the spirit of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt. Sequestered together in their wooded retreat, the friends start bandying about some loose screenplay ideas, and before long, their real feelings about (and for) each other begin to color the drama. Pudgy and balding and running on empty in the self-esteem department, Matt clumsily pines for the ditsily charming Michelle, who herself has a none-too-subtle case of the hots for the slick-haired, smooth-talking Chad, who doesn’t seem the type who says no to a lot of girls, despite the disapproving glare of his sometimes significant other, Catherine. So, they talk and drink and make awkward passes. Somebody says that a good idea for a movie would be a bunch of people in a cabin being terrorized by a psycho with a paper bag over his head. And, in due course, just such a psycho makes his entrance.
Life imitates art imitates life. Relationships drift apart and come together onscreen and behind the scenes. And in the end, battered and bruised (physically and emotionally), our neophyte cineastes come to realize, like so many DIY filmmakers before them, that whatever doesn’t kill them could conceivably make them famous. This isn’t novel stuff, but there’s a special giddiness in the way the Duplass brothers take the conventions of three atrophied movie genres — the romantic comedy, the horror movie and the movie about moviemaking — and twist them into demented, unpredictable new permutations. No wonder they decided to make Baghead on their own, despite the interest of several major studios, all of which reportedly wanted the brothers to reformulate the screenplay as a more straightforward, blood-and-guts affair. Watching it, you’re never quite sure if you’re supposed to laugh or shudder, which is saying a lot at a time when most movies drop their seventh veil before the trailer has even come to an end.
STEP BROTHERS | Directed by ADAM McKAY | Written by WILL FERRELL and McKAY, from a story by FERRELL, McKAY and JOHN C. REILLY | Produced by JIMMY MILLER and JUDD APATOW | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide
BAGHEAD | Written and directed by JAY DUPLASS and MARK DUPLASS | Produced by JAY DUPLASS, MARK DUPLASS and JOHN BRYANT | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | Sunset 5, Monica 4-Plex, Playhouse 7