Adam McKay’s new comedy Step Brothers, and the man-child odysseys of Judd Apatow, don’t see eye-to-eye, according to DAVID LEVINSON.


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DESPITE the appearance of having materialised, apropos of nothing, from the one-man comedy-factory of Judd Apatow, it’s hard not to read the comedy of arrested development as a backlash against the SNL fratboy sagas of the ‘80s, where, for jocks and geeks alike, the most pressing goal was getting laid. Under the guidance of Apatow & co., that short-sighted indulgence has found itself jutting up against real world quandries of family and marriage, dovetailing with our own culture’s insistence on protracted youth. Clearing away the bong smoke, Apatow offers us nappy-haired party animals and overgrown geeks staring into a morning after of new responsibility.

Lately, there’s been a spat of diffusion-line works produced under the factory seal. But as forefather of the movement, its two most potent expressions remain Apatow’s self-directed comedies, The 40-Year Old Virgin (2005) and Knocked Up (2007). Undeniably siblings of the same universe, each seems to draw on the sitcom as a kind of aesthetic rallying point – a fact which might signal derision for some, given the way the format has become synonymous with a blunting of reality. But rather than force-feeding us ersatz visions of comfort, erected around the totem of once-risque comedians grappling with domestic life, Apatow has managed to turn the trappings of the sitcom into a viable source of conflict in his equation of growing up.

Granting clear voice to Apatow’s intentions is Knocked Up’s Pete (Paul Rudd), who, in counselling Ben Stone (Seth Rogan) over his impending absorption into a world of adult responsibility, urged that “marriage is like a tense, unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond, only it doesn’t last 22 minutes. It lasts forever.” More than the rest of Apatow’s shout-outs to the bargain-bin debris of pop culture (Mr. Skin anyone?), the allusion to Raymond walks a thin line between snarky breaking-of-the-fourth-wall, and the earnest regret of a man whose most pertinent frame of reference is primetime TV. For Apatow’s characters – stuck in a landscape pledged somewhere between E! television and unkempt ‘80s nostalgia – struggle thus becomes a matter of affirming one’s existence as a flesh-and-blood being (prone to struggle, disappointment, etc.) over the comfortable numbness of mediation.

Not to imply that The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up don’t come armed with their own in-built concessions to fantasy; as critics have pointed out, with varying degrees of tolerance, romance in Apatow’s world is a lopsided affair, in which gorgeous women repeatedly succumb to the lure of geeks and directionless stoners. But that one hiccup of wish-fulfillment aside, both films succeed in mapping out a zeitgest where the comfort afforded by sitcom life – both materially, and in the specific brand of (male) camaraderie it affords – has become a point of stasis. Neither Ben Stone nor Andy “The 40-Year Old Virgin” Stitzer actively chooses to leave that world behind; in both cases they’re goaded on by some external sense of pressure. But as they struggle to find their footing in their new climate (a conflict Apatow expresses visually by mapping out the same generic scenery we’ve become accustomed to seeing on TV [mall-shop interiors, suburban living-rooms, etc.] and blowing it up via the 2:35:1 frame), we learn that, nixing the harmless dissent of pot-smoking, growing up is the most transgressive act on offer, because it means dispensing with ironic posturing for the sake of opening oneself up to the possibility of (un)happiness. Whereas the sitcom regards the family unit as inseparable from the lifestyle porn it peddles, Apatow ultimately views those two phenonema as being at deliberate odds with one another.

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IN CONTRAST to the work of Judd Apatow, which strikes a careful balance between comfort and necessity, stasis and growth, Adam McKay’s Step Brothers shrugs off internal tension, settling instead for a mangled endorsement of its characters’ delinquency. Ironically, it’s McKay who most seems to have taken the lessons of the sitcom to heart – yet rather than employ them as a point of difference, he blindly incorporates them into the film’s structure. Thus, eager to the cut to the chase, the film sloppily dispenses its TV-ready premise during the opening montage: Set to the jaunty rhythms of Vampire Weekend’s “A-Punk,” we witness the meet-cute between Dr. Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Nancy (Mary Steenburgen), who lock eyes during a medical conference. Mutually enraptured, the two relocate to a hotel room where, poised on the brink of lovemaking, Nancy offers a caveat: Her 39-year old son Brennan (Ferrell) still lives at home with her. Thankfully, as luck (or lazy screenwriting) would have it, so does Robert’s 40-year old son Dale (John C. Reilly). Cut to: Wedding bells, shortly after which the four adults find themselves living together under Robert’s roof.

For Robert and Nancy, still awash in the glow of their honeymoon, life together may represent a post-fifty triumph, but for Dale and Brennan, home is where the hate is. Like Apatow, McKay pits his characters’ regression against the comfort of their surroundings, but rather than force them out into the real world, Step Brothers remains perversely close-minded, milking the brothers’ aggravation as an excuse for an endless volley of insults. Naturally, these being post-punchline times, the two comedians swap wit for invective, which means any semblance of a ‘joke’ now rests entirely on the actors’ delivery (sample line: “You're a big, fat, curly-headed fuck!“). When the litany of F-words prove inadequate, however, McKay forces the action into more gross-out territory, delivering a scene where Brennan tea-bags Dale’s beloved drum kit. Once again, upon seeing Ferrell’s stunt-balls straddling the instrument’s surface, my thoughts drifted to Apatow, who likewise opted to puncture the surface of Knocked Up with a shot of Katherine Heigel’s vagina. But while Apatow’s physical candidness worked in context (jolting Ben Stone out of his sexist myopia), McKay’s reeks of the desperate scouring of comedy’s last unchartered terretories.

Unhampered by pretense, what Step Brothers amounts to is a picture of the comedian’s ego in all its barbed glory. In his past films, Ferrell would usually filter that hubris through a thick layer of irony, deliberately taking on the persona of a self-absorbed jerkwad. But Dale and Brennan remain brazenly unaccounted for, driven neither by the spastic interal eruptions that propelled Jerry Lewis’s characters, nor the pack mentality that weighs over Apatow’s man-children. It’s as if McKay were simply deferring to the existence of ‘arrested development’ as a cemented cultural phenomena, thus bucking the need for overt moralizing. Stripped of any internal resistance, beyond the strictly pragmatic (halfway through the movie, Robert expresses his plans to sell the family home and sail around the world, meaning that Dale and Brennan will be forced to fend for themselves), Step Brothers feels like a giant playground built around its audiences’ desire for guilt-free anarchy. (The fact that ‘growing up’ here is equated with the lifestyle led by Brennan’s brother Derek – an SUV-driving control-freak who “hasn’t had a carb since 2004” – only drives the point home). Try as he might though, McKay can’t keep the charade up forever; in the end, he buckles, delivering a final turnaround in which his two doofus leads start up their own successful business venture, as well bag two more-than-adequate love interests. In its own perverse way - as a have-it-all buffet in which the protagonists get what they want without commiting to any real change – Step Brothers might actually have more to say about a culture of priviledged white kids who refuse to grow up. Nevertheless, that unintended ‘honesty’ doesn’t automatically make for better cinema.