American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
When did comedies get so mean? "Step Brothers" has a premise that might have produced a good time at the movies, but when I left, I felt a little unclean. The plot: Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly play Brennan and Dale, two never-employed 40-ish sons who still live at home, eating melted cheese nachos and watching TV. When their parents (Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins) get married, they become step-brothers and have to share the same room. This causes them to inflict agonizing pain upon each other and use language that would seem excessive in the men's room of a truck stop.
Is this funny? Anything can be funny. Let me provide an example. I am thinking of a particular anatomical act. It is described in explicit detail in two 2008 movies, "Step Brothers" and the forthcoming "Tropic Thunder." In "Step Brothers," it sounds dirty and disgusting. In "Tropic Thunder," described by Jack Black while he is tied to a tree and undergoing heroin withdrawal, it's funny.
Same act, similar descriptions. What's the difference? It involves the mechanism of comedy, I think. The Jack Black character is desperately motivated. He will offer to do anything to be released. In "Step Brothers," the language is simply showing off by talking dirty. It serves no comic function, and just sort of sits there in the air, making me cringe.
I know, I know, four-letter language is the currency of a movie like this, and many of the other films Judd Apatow produces. I would be lying if I said I was shocked. I would also be lying if I said I had no taste, or judgment of comic strategy. I'm sure I've seen movies with more extreme language than "Step Brothers," but here it seems to serve no purpose other than simply to exist. In its own tiny way, it lowers the civility of our civilization.