Step Brothers (2008)
Step Brothers was made by free men. Gloriously anarchic, it's the purest distillation of the Adam McKay-Will Farrell aesthetic, which values combative performances above all else, a kind of actorly one upsmanship. After completing the relatively large-scale Talledega Nights, McKay wanted to, as he told The Oklahoman: "do a film that was almost all about characters and dialogue — no action and no '70s nostalgia, just straight-up, nonstop riffing." Enamored with the improvisatory nuggets mined by the team of John C. Reilly and Farrell on Talledega, McKay conceived of a plot that would have them together on-screen for an entire film, hence the step-brotherdom. The movie, then, is a scrim for a feature-length improvisation session, which was how Farell and McKay were trained: McKay at the Upright Citizens Brigade, and Farrell with The Groundlings, before they both teamed up on Saturday Night Live.
Reilly is the outlier, the one with dramatic chops whose id was let loose by the Apatow gang. He's quite wonderful in Walk Hard, probably the most underrated of the Apatow comedies, but there's a peculiar sophmoric magic that occurs when he spars with Farrell, a matter of timing and sensibility. They key off each other's self-absorbed personas, trading insults so absurd it turns into a battle of the non-sequitor ("The last time I heard that I fell off my dinosaur."). Their delight in performing with each other is contagious, spreading to the staighter-laced parents, played by Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins. Steenburgen savors each curse word, while Jenkins turns in a performance that is close to madness. His shit-eating grin while being seduced by Ferrell's yuppie brother Derek (Adam Huff) edges into the grotesque, while his improvisatory (I assume) monologue about his teen T-rex impersonations is pure Dada.
The plot totally falls apart during the sublimely ridiculous ending, at the incessantly repeated "Catalina Wine Mixer". The phrase in itself is rather banal, but intoned ad nauseum by the main players, it becomes pure nonsense, a children's game, until the "fucking Catalina Wine Mixer" had me in tears. This "nonsense" spreads through the whole sequence, incorporating dreams, fantasies, and the solid organizational structure of Enterprise rent-a-car. The film would make a great double-bill with Howard Hawks' (admittedly greater) Monkey Business, another film which reverts to childhood. It's critical of its adults-turned-kids, while Step Brothers revels in the pre-self-consciousness of children. But both films are unafraid to look silly for the sake of a laugh and refuse to condescend to the innocence and destructiveness of youth.