Ever since The 40-Year-Old Virgin laid the first row of bricks in Judd Apatow's comedy kingdom, profane tales of arrested development have become so ubiquitous that they're seemingly the only type of comedy Hollywood is interested in producing. Though Apatow started this trend of overgrown man-children and the women who tolerate them, the blame can't rest entirely at his feet. In fact, the two films Apatow has written and directed—Virgin and Knocked Up—help account for where disappointments like Step Brothers go wrong. No matter how absurd the situations can get in Apatow's films, they're always grounded in characters and observations that are recognizably human and unbound by high-concept gimmicks.
Working again with frequent partner Adam McKay, his director and co-writer on cartoonishly funny comedies like Anchorman and Talladega Nights, Will Ferrell errs on the side of the outrageous in Step Brothers and winds up trampling all over a great premise. Ferrell and his multi-talented Talladega buddy John C. Reilly star as a couple of unemployed layabouts who are 40 or approaching it but still living under their respective parents' roofs. When Ferrell's mother (Mary Steenburgen) and Reilly's father (Richard Jenkins) get married, the four of them move in together. At first, the stepbrothers are at each other's throats, but over time, they find they have too much in common—a passion for velociraptors, Shark Week, and amateur karate, for starters—to stay enemies for long.
One of the elements that separates Step Brothers from other arrested-development comedies also happens to be what makes it worse: Ferrell and Reilly aren't adolescents refusing to cross the threshold into adulthood, they're more like petulant 10-year-olds given to bunkbeds, treehouses, and temper tantrums. It's hard to believe that two people could reach middle age acting like grade-schoolers, and not in a funny way, either; the execution spoils most of the scenes by substituting raw, Adam Sandler-like aggression for real wit. This is a loud, ugly, foul comedy whose shortcomings extend far into the supporting cast, including reliably excellent character actors like Jenkins and Steenburgen, both coaxed into overplaying what should be straight roles. There's too much talent involved for the film to not score a few incidental laughs—a band that only covers '80s Billy Joel, say, or a singing voice so mellifluous that it's likened to a combination of "Fergie and Jesus"—but Step Brothers doesn't know when to dial it back.