Step Brothers Was One of the First Great Films About the American Economic Crisis

Adam McKay's absurdist gem also finds time to appreciate what creates man-children

Step Brothers (Sony)

“I wasn’t fired from my job. I was laid off, but you wouldn’t know the difference!


The 2007-2008 financial crisis was like a perfect storm of shit-poor policies bolstering an already shaky marketplace. Economists are still more than happy to spread the blame – bad mortgages, deregulation, rating agency fuckups, public and professional ineptitude. In shorter, more human terms, we all got boned.

One way to look at it? The system was rigged and shakily assembled, and it was only a matter of time. Another more humane way to look at the crisis is that a lot of people got hurt. Mortgages, homes, lives, all stalled if not destroyed entirely. America sputtered: cutbacks, layoffs, downsizing. The psychological damage to a nation’s pride. A generation in stagnation. Boomers lost money. Millennials struggled to sneak into a damaged workforce.

We became a nation of grown men in Return of the Jedi shirts with ovalesque tummies, forced to live at home with our parents, chipping away at nest eggs, too depressed to do anything but watch Rock of Love on VH1. Mercedes payments and boat fantasies had to wait. $20 for pizza would have to suffice.

Who knew Step Brothers had so much sympathy for the recession?

“Sympathy” might be a bit much, but there’s something real and pure about Adam McKay’s portrait of stuck “man children.” It’s the premiere financial crisis comedy, one might surmise. (The Big Short is more of a social dramedy, we’d argue.) This baby holds up sharper and more cleverly than you may recall. It’s been a whole 10 years since Adam McKay unleashed his instant cult classic on a befuddled public, and the thing’s aging far better than Brennan and Dale were.

Kyle Smith at the New York Post gave it backhanded praise. “Too much funny,” he called it. Roger Ebert asked, “When did comedies get so mean?” Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter even went so far as to question the film’s motives and suggested the leads might have mental health problems and deeply need help. Yikes. But 10 years on, and a Big Short later, McKay’s intentions are clearer and stronger than ever. This is a howling mad indictment. It’s Network by way of the Three Stooges: commentary in a crass, slap-happy key. A classic gas about what happens when overconfident and infantile men scream about their problems instead of fixing them. In the aftermath, the film feels like the easiest-to-understand assessment of late Bush 2-era policies and what happens when big boys fail (or are allowed to over-succeed). Now let’s get this fucking Catalina wine mixer moving.

What started as a lark – three guys riffing as long as needed to assemble a movie – has grown in esteem. The trio of Adam McKay, Will Ferrell, and John C. Reilly teamed up for 2006’s Talladega Nights. Riding the success of Anchorman, the team made hay with their NASCAR farce. Ferrell and Reilly clicked as two auto-dopes (“Shake and Bake!”), and with McKay’s guidance, the guys made a smash hit and found themselves looking for any excuse to get together again. The Ringer hits on this nicely – McKay saw the promise in Reilly and Ferrell just dicking around in the car pits. Like the shaggiest of improv-style comedies – Dumb and Dumber, The 40-Year Old Virgin, Anchorman – rambling chaos begat genius.

McKay, born in the trenches of Second City, is like a devil’s advocate for their comic mantra. “Yes, and” for him must have been “no, I’m just gonna say whatever I want, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”. It’s never about support in McKay’s world. It’s classic one-upsmanship. It’s seeing a benign thought through until it’s painfully funny. McKay likes curveballs, like Brick eating fiber-glass insulation in Anchorman or the long, odd comedy of the specific, as with Ricky Bobby’s over-extended praise of Sweet Baby Jesus before a KFC-Pepsi dinner in Talladega Nights.

Step Brothers turns McKay’s tendencies into a borderline New Wave film. A comic abstraction. A dare to churn out 90 minutes of comedy with the slimmest possible outline and nothing but his team’s wits and baseline characteristics to guide them. (The trio drafted 180 pages, by the way.)

Two grown-ass men who act like 12-year-olds are forced to cohabitate when their parents re-marry. Problem Child 2. Diff’rent Strokes even? It’s a Leonard Nimoy movie in 1989, but McKay makes it wild and meaningful in a contorted way. His meanness, as it were, becomes blisteringly funny when it’s rooted in something real: ego and history.

McKay’s style, his quickness and crudity, immediately takes hold. Brennan Huff (Ferrell) is like a shy kid that never lost his baby fat. Dale Dobeck (Reilly) is a nerd who’s wildly over-confident in his cool. Like most adolescents, their understanding of sex is graphically puerile (classic nudie mag collections, Dale’s speech about his “luscious ball ‘fro”). They want to go to bed early when feeling pressured into being social. Their first meeting over dinner is like two toddlers puffing chests, with brazen singing, awkward amounts of ketchup (or fancy sauce), and other petty behaviors.

McKay’s intuitive sense of bruised pride and men’s refusal to acknowledge fault is key. Brennan’s snit isn’t about the salmon; it’s about failure. It’s not about Dale’s drum kit; it’s about his dashed dreams and overwhelming sense of entitlement. Yes, there are tons of references, but that’s because references are the language of men unable to have a reasonable conversation, grasping onto former obsessions and glories instead of hard realities. (Could the Heavy Metal poster in Dale and Brennan’s bedroom be any more tragicomic?)

McKay is no stranger to mocking Serious White Men. He adores calling shenanigans on them and, more recently, their machinations. He’s gifted at social satire. His comedy is rooted in commentary more often than not, and it goes all the way back to his beginnings at The Second City. McKay showed a distrust for corporate culture with his famous “Gump” sketch, in which a corporate VP takes a psych exam, only to be informed that he’s “legally r*tarded.” Maybe that’s why the original video has disappeared, but while it’s utterly uncomfortable, the ideas about failing upward, and not questioning authority no matter how dense that VP might be, still stand. (The VP: “When you say ‘legally,’ am I going to be arrested?”) It’s amateur, too, but the deadpan confidence and ideas land, and he got more finessed and focused.

Flash forward to McKay’s years as head writer of SNL and pulling great stuff like the “I drive a Dodge Stratus!” bit with his longtime collaborator Will Ferrell. Once again, the impatient anger of a self-described ‘very important’ division manager is a piteous masterpiece. Anchorman cemented McKay’s ear for dum-dum machismo. But it would be The Other Guys that outed McKay’s irritation for the way things are run in America, and The Big Short would crystallize that. Big boys feel like they own finance, the stock market, the whole damn system. It’s not fair, so it’s best to make fun.

That’s the secret genius of Step Brothers. It’s a meditation on bad decisions and desperate comebacks that runs parallel to the recession. To the earlier point of economists laying blame on a multitude of actions and incidents that brought us to financial stagnation, Step Brothers actually (if not accidentally) addresses all of them.

Step Brothers blends McKay’s brazen absurdism with actual insights into that ever-evasive zeitgeist. Underneath the bunkbed failure is a series of statements on: overconfidence, laziness, refusal to accept responsibility, shoddy carpentry, and the space-saving awkwardness of a bunk bed. McKay lets it rip. He bags on corporate culture, bad businessmen, the meanness of sons, real estate, forced living situations, and the whole snotty new nature of The American Dream. Brennan failing to wipe his ass and learning to buy tee-pee at Costco feels so shamelessly patriotic, no? Or how about Dale reading Montel Williams’ self-help books?

McKay relentlessly drives home his themes of American stagnation. Interviews in tuxes? No concern for the actual work at hand, but question-and-answer sessions about sex with Oprah and salary negotiations first and foremost. It all comes to a head when the two pitch their business venture to their parents. Management. Financial portfolios. Insurance. Computers. Black leather gloves. Research and development. There’s zero substance to their slideshow, and they wreck a very pricey boat in the process. Business collateral is just part of the dream, baby. And it’s more fun to pitch out vision-board opulence than to actually do stuff and be proud of a day’s work. We still value this. How many times has Musk made news pitching bogus ideas? Dale and Brennan’s pitch scene is all over-confidence. It speaks to practices that are still pandemic in big business and the larger world of the white American male.

Which, we have to talk about Derek. Adam Scott’s Derek, Brennan’s dickhead brother, is an amalgam of shady real estate practices and Enron-like vanity business. He operates from his Land Rover, with a Bluetooth, running his company, D-Man Realty — complete with a headshot one imagines it took hours to perfect. He’s more focused on business trips and parties than any work. (Anyone remember what he actually does?) Derek is the guy, the opportunistic chauvinist, that McKay openly railed against in The Big Short.

It’s a hot sheet of recession characteristics. We sense the mortgage crisis with Derek’s slack real-estate work. Job loss is right there with Dale and Brennan. They also have no concept of money or responsibility, hence their crappy beg for 10 grand. And again, the behavior of everyone in this film feels not far from how the big boys behave in the corner offices. Recklessness abounds. It’s enough to make you wanna grab a drink at the Cheesecake Factory.

But in spite of all this, the core conceit is such a shockingly simple, effective, and just-damn-funny statement on recession psychology. There’s something so perfectly on-point about two 40-year-olds living at home. To be sure, the arrested development thing is funny as an anachronism; after all, nothing’s sadder than a grown man sipping Pepsi Blue like it’s fancy or professing his love for his therapist because he’s desperate for acknowledgement. But it’s so evocative of the 2008 American experience. Dale and Brennan will have their comebacks even if they refuse to make any honest effort to change or grow (and it speaks to why we might be on the verge of a crisis any day now with our refusal to learn, and love of corporate tax breaks, deregulation, and other popular one-percenter policies). And that’s what makes Step Brothers so deliriously evocative. It intuits something big through the actions of two guys with priority problems that love samurai swords with Randy Jackson’s name on them.

But perhaps the funniest thing is that, somehow, despite the abuses, we take pity on Dale and Brennan. They also reflect on a compromised America. They are lost, stuck children. They’re amiable shits, who suffered a bad hand. And Step Brothers is cool like that. It’s a functioning mess of hog-wild comedy with a now historical-looking bent. That Bekins moving truck, those house sale troubles, and Dale dressing up like a Klansman? That all just feels so 2008 now. (Or 2018, he wrote nervously.) Step Brothers, in spite of itself, is a timepiece of value and importance. There may be something to be learned here: accord yourselves with dignity. Learn to pick yourselves up. And don’t waste your money on Chewbacca masks when you’re stuck at home with mom and dad.


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