The Reilly Factor

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Posted July 24, 2008 in Film

As a species, the teenage boy is odorous, delusional, hormonal, demanding, and cocksure, even if insinuated organ goes unused. A 40-year-old adult who refuses to evolve beyond pubescence is all of these things at double the weight, body hair, and blustering insecurity. As Brennan Huff, a son who’s spent four decades living with divorced mom Nancy (a sweet Mary Steenburgen), Will Ferrell is a master channeller of eternal youth. He plods, grunts, boasts, and subsists on Kool-Aid and Doritos; when angry, he sulks in the car. Brennan is that nerd from band camp who tells everyone his dad is an astronaut pirate and weeps silently into his pillow at night.  

 

Ferrell is the third best teenage boy I’ve ever seen, behind Shia LaBeouf and Ferrell’s Step Brothers co-star John C. Reilly, the latter of whom is such a riot I’ve forgiven him his six-year-stretch of Serious Pictures where he only took roles that made him out to be a hangdog sap. Reilly’s Dale Doback is more brutish than the momma’s boy Brennan. He drinks beer and talks sex, though it’s not clear he’s ever had any. Reilly’s jeans are borrowed from Kip Winger (who knew the star of The Hours had such great legs?) and his ego from dad Robert (Richard Jenkins), a successful doctor who’s sprung for his entire existence including a bedroom decorated with Manowar posters and bikini chicks and a separate music room with his Ultra Precious Drumset.

 

When Robert and Nancy’s one-night stand turns into a quick fire marriage, Brennan is forced (or at least, considers himself forced) to share a room with Dale, lest he disturb the Ultra Precious Drumset. And within days, he’s rubbing his nutsack on it during a prank war that’s giddily immature—these guys aren’t planners, they’re all rage. Writer-director Adam McKay’s script (co-written by Farrell with credit given to Reilly’s improv) is best at nailing the minor league mind down to the way the dudes speak in notebook doodles. Songs aren’t described as “great,” or even “dope,” they’re likened to unicorns raining beauty from a mountaintop.

 

Naturally, in this post-Apatow world, these man-children are ridiculed, forced to make some attempt at maturity, and then celebrated for being themselves. Here, the triggers are their parents, a couple inessential love interests, and most wickedly, Brennan’s younger brother Derek (Adam Scott), an alpha male with a hot blonde wife, a $550K annual income, two kids, and a strong a cappella tenor. Scott has a face so groomed, shiny and unnerving he looks made of plasticine. He’s a chipmunk-cheeked villain you want to punch on sight.  Dale does, thus winning the heart and loins of Derek’s wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn), a volcanic blonde with the poise of a Hampton’s hostess who uses a urinal like a trucker.  

 

Step Brothers drags in the redemptive final act, but has earned our patience with a first hour that’s sincere and totally doofus. Those are Ferrell’s trademarks. Even so, he’s outdone by the primal, go-for-broke Reilly who steals every scene just as he did in Talladega Nights. After that film and The Promotion I’m slowly coming to realize that Reilly may be the greatest comic actor of our generation—he’s fearlessly earnest and incapable of mugging. Ferrell’s willingness to strip to his skivvies made his reputation, but Reilly’s the more naked beast; he’s acts as though he’s as oblivious of the camera as a lion mauling a gazelle on Planet Earth. I could spend hours watching him sleep in his den, rousing himself periodically for a cheeseburger.


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